Matildas star says player unions key if women’s football is to survive coronavirus fallout

When Matildas midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight arrived in Sweden on March 16, she had no idea what the next few months had in store for global football.

Her first match for Kristianstads DFF in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan league was supposed to kick off that weekend, but between landing on the tarmac and lacing up her boots on game day, competitions around the world had come to a shuddering halt.

“It was an awkward time as I wasn’t sure how bad the situation was going to become,” Kellond-Knight said.

“Within a few days of arriving, the circumstances got drastically worse.

“We’ve still been able to train as normal here — Sweden has only implemented restrictions to groups of less than 50 people. Fortunately for me, life hasn’t looked too different over here … besides missing competitive games.”

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Kellond-Knight is one of the lucky few female footballers whose leagues will recommence following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the seven major women’s leagues in Europe, just three — Sweden, Norway and Germany — have returned or will return to action, while competitions in England, Spain, France and Italy have been cancelled altogether.

This was, frustratingly, predictable. In April, FIFPro — the global players’ union — released a paper warning that women’s football faced an “existential threat” from the shutdown.

It called on governing bodies and other stakeholders to put structures in place to ensure the women’s game did not lose the ground it had rapidly gained over the preceding five years.

“Unless there is a clear commitment to stabilise competitions and provide financial assistance to keep leagues, clubs and players in business, the economic standstill will ultimately result in insolvencies of otherwise profitable and stable clubs,” the report said.

“The lack of written contracts, the short-term duration of employment contracts, the lack of health insurance and medical coverage, and the absence of basic worker protections and workers’ rights leaves many female players — some of whom were already teetering on the margins — at great risk of losing their livelihoods.”

Elise Kellond-Knight and her Matildas teammates celebrate scoring a goal

Elise Kellond-Knight and her Matildas teammates celebrate scoring a goal

Kellond-Knight scored against Norway at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.(Reuters: Jean-Paul Pelissier)

The COVID report is something Kellond-Knight is familiar with, as she provided insight and feedback to the team who put it together.

In January, the Matilda became the first (and so far, only) Australian representative on FIFPro’s Global Player Council (GPC), a representative body of professional footballers that aims to “protect the interests of players around the world and safeguard their rights.”

From legal support to physical and mental health advice, negotiating international rule changes, and education and training for life after football, the union provides players with an added layer of representation and protection from football’s ruthless machinations — something many of them have experienced first-hand recently as the double-edged sword of globalisation has come crashing down on the industry.

“[The GPC] is another way to connect directly to players and ultimately elevate their voices to global decision-making tables,” said Kellond-Knight, who also sits on Professional Footballers Australia’s (PFA) executive committee.

Global football’s union landscape has existed largely as a patchwork of national associations, such as the PFA, which focus exclusively on their own members. But FIFPro is the first international football body to bring these various union groups — 65 so far — to the one table.

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The GPC in particular reinforces FIFPro’s mandate and provides a player-led platform for discussions of wider issues affecting football’s most important workers, including sexism, racism and homophobia. The council includes players such as Anita Asante, Vincent Kompany, Saki Kumagai, Rui Patricio, Kim Little and Giorgio Chiellini.

Domestic and international player unions have been particularly vocal in the women’s game recently. Following the COVID paper, FIFPro shared its long-awaited “Raising Our Game” report — a ‘state of the industry’ study of women’s football — with FIFA, urging the governing body to further support the women’s game as it emerges from the coronavirus wreckage and beyond.

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“The COVID paper produced by FIFPro highlights the fact that women’s football can’t be forgotten now, in an exceptional time of need,” Kellond-Knight said.

“Women’s football has gathered momentum and I hope it’s this momentum that carries it through this crisis. It’s important women’s football isn’t overlooked as clubs and federations try to find their feet again.

“Many have thought that now is an opportunity to reposition the game, allowing leaders to look at the game more collectively.

“How can we reboot the game together, instead of focusing on just rebooting the men’s game?”

It’s a timely question as men’s football leagues around the world have begun resuming their seasons while their female colleagues watch on from the sidelines.

“We can always be doing more,” Kellond-Knight said.

“Governing bodies could step in and implement certain incentives to ensure clubs don’t forget the female game. I also think planning and creating strategies with longer-term success in mind will be useful at this stage.

“There won’t be an overnight solution, so we need people with big-picture thinking and the ability to develop strategies directed at long-term and sustainable improvement.”

Elise Kellond-Knight stands in an attempted tackle from Chu.

Elise Kellond-Knight stands in an attempted tackle from Chu.

Elise Kellond-Knight has 106 international caps for the Matildas.(Reuters: Kelvin Kuo)

The coronavirus has exposed many things about the football industry, not least the powerlessness of players in the sport’s wider economic riptide. But organisations like FIFPro and national unions like the PFA have slowly gained legitimacy and strength in numbers to ensure these workers are not left on their own to drown.

“The power of a collective voice in comparison to a single voice is immense,” Kellond-Knight said.

“When the collective has solidarity, the organisation in question is challenged and cannot simply dismiss what the group is appealing for. A collective opinion basically has a higher chance of being a catalyst for change.

“As a young player, I dreamed of playing for my country and competing in full stadiums, making it my chosen career path. However, when I reached the top level, it wasn’t all I thought it would be. I want to make it a realistic dream and a desired career path for all young aspiring female footballers.

“Without a change of strategy and alignment, the female game won’t reach the level we want it to. I want to help change the thinking surrounding women’s football, to give it the respect and investment it deserves.”

Samantha Lewis is a freelance women’s football writer based in Sydney.