Sarah Walsh: It’s my turn to bring down barriers for young girls

With one week to go to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Football Day 2024, the Confederation’s latest “It’s My Game” episode delves into the remarkable journey of Sarah Walsh, Head of Women’s Football at Football Australia, whose unwavering commitment to developing the women’s game reached its pinnacle with the historic success of the Matildas at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023.

A former striker who faced multiple career-threatening injuries before the age of 18, Walsh overcame the odds to make her debut for the national team at 21 in 2004 and eventually etched her name in the history books when the Matildas emerged as champions of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup™ for the first time in 2010.

Since hanging up her boots, the 40-year-old has drawn on her unique perspective as a footballer turned administrator to put players first while considering the broader needs of the sport.

“I was pretty much the only girl playing in Camden, and elsewhere it was probably just Heather Garriock (who was) playing at the time,” recalled Walsh. “To be honest, I was part of the one per cent and I would have overcome anything to play football for my country. Now it is my turn to do the work to bring down barriers for young girls and make sure all of them can play, even if it is just for fun.”

This determination led her to be at the forefront of the Legacy ’23 programme which transformed the landscape of women’s football Down Under, culminating in a historic Semi-final finish at the 2023 edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup – Australia’s best ever.

“Of course, we kicked off Legacy ’23 in 2021 as part of our bid to win the rights to host the competition. But it was more about delivering economic and social change and we are proud to say that we secured over AUD $357 million in funding,” said Walsh.

“However, it’s not just the investment with what we did with the Matildas on the pitch; we had them at the centre and heart of everything that we did for three years, and we focused on how we can improve, or cascade, all the change we’ve made at the Matildas’ level.

“Focusing on high performance has been a key pillar of the plan to ensure that we’re building a legacy beyond this current Matildas squad and address shortcomings, the results of which, thanks to the exemplary leadership of Tony Gustavsson, were evident at the (FIFA Women’s) World Cup.”

As the unforgettable experience of the women’s global showpiece continues to reverberate, Walsh remains optimistic about the future and sees the tournament as a catalyst for change that will inspire young children to dream big.

“I think we’ve unlocked something here in Australia and we’ll be talking about this for decades,” said Walsh, who amassed 70 international caps and 31 goals for her country. “We have built a fandom around the Matildas and their success will play a key role in driving the interest at a grassroots level.”

Additionally, with the inaugural edition of the AFC Women’s Champions League on the horizon, Walsh is confident that exciting times await women’s football in not just Australia, but across the Continent.

“The AFC’s attention towards developing the women’s game in Asia is seeing rapid progress, especially when it comes to initiatives such as club licensing which has been instrumental in allowing clubs to benchmark themselves and use it as a tool to improve in really key areas, whether it be through technical or just grassroots development,” she said.

“Therefore, I see the AFC Women’s Champions League to be at the very heart of the change that we have been striving for. In Europe, we have seen how it has attracted big names and I’m very excited about what the AFC Women’s Champions League will do for football in Asia.”

Launched on the AFC Women’s Football Day in 2018, the AFC’s “It’s My Game” campaign continues to honour inspiring women in football throughout the world’s largest Continent, reaching millions of people via the AFC’s digital channels.

To watch the full video, please click here.

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