Matt Tilby sits down with Australian womens representative Sally Shipard to talk German football, the possibility of going fully pro, and wearing a Moustache. As you do.
“It’s pretty much a hole in the wall…”
Sally Shipard wasn’t joking. Nestled in between the apartments and the offices in the desirable locale of Teneriffe, Dot 210 Cafe was hard to spot. It protruded out, on the edge of one of many buildings that lined the Vernon Street strip. It crept out onto the boardwalk beside the Brisbane River and was probably the size of a small garden shed. A unique cafe, and one that is certainly fitting for a chat with one of Australian football’s most interesting characters.
Around the side of the café, Shipard greets you with a warm smile and a handshake. “Did you get here okay?” She sits back down, her coffee apparently long gone. An iced chocolate is ordered. She shows an undeniable buzz; that constant chipper nature. She’s definitely a people person. Her hair, long, brown and brushed over on one side, has changed over the years more times than you can imagine – reminiscent of a certain Beckham.
Despite being only 25 years old, Shipard can be considered a veteran of the game, with over 50 caps for the Australian women’s national team, more commonly referred to as the Matildas. Her debut in the 2004 Olympic Games was followed up with participation in the 2007 and 2011 FIFA Womens World Cups, where Australia reached the quarter-final on both occasions.
Of course, Sally’s journey with football started out like a lot of other professional footballers did. She started playing football at age 5, but admits that it was the sibling rivalry between her and her three brothers that really inspired her to take up the sport.
“I grew up in Wagga Wagga, which is the place of all sports, and from a young age you’re introduced to so many different sporting pursuits, and it was football and cricket that I eventually decided between. I was maybe twelve when I wanted to be a Matilda, and from that day onwards I didn’t really turn back at all.”
It plays out like most of those inspirational sporting movies. Shipard, up until the age of 15, played plenty of football in boys’ teams. She describes this as an important part of her footballing development, so much so that she moved to Sydney in a bid to find higher levels of the sport.
After a sabbatical from the game in 2008, which saw her take up one of her great loves – travelling – Shipard returned to Australia to sign with Canberra United of the W-League, the newly formed women’s equivalent of the Hyundai A-League. For many years in the shadow of the A-League, the debate has raged over whether the league should follow the path of their “brother clubs” and go professional. Shipard, however, doesn’t see it happening any time soon.
“I’ve always had this battle in my mind about how professional women’s football can get in Australia. In my career, I doubt it’ll ever be fully blown professional, purely because we just don’t raise the revenue…”
It’s a point well raised. While the support for the league has grown slightly over its’ lifetime, it can’t compete with the men’s game, which has skyrocketed to astronomic heights. She believes any link that the W-League can create with their A-League brothers is positive. However, Canberra United is unaffiliated with a men’s team, so they’re basically on their own.
Despite this, Shipard has proven herself as one of the league’s star players, being a part of Canberra United’s undefeated campaign in 2011/12, as well as being named the Julie Dolan Medal winner for the best player in the league. It’s also led to some opportunities in the media, with chances to write for Football Federation Australia, among others.
Her latest footballing adventure came in the form of a short stint in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen at the tail-end of last season. Having been signed to help the cub escape relegation, the club achieved that goal. She admits that despite her love for travelling allowing her to see the sights in Germany and the chance to play professional football, the language barrier was tough.
“I’ve always wanted to play professionally and even though it was only a five month period, it was so incredible. It was a matter of being out of my comfort zone.”
At this point, the iced chocolate that was ordered is untouched. The conversation is becoming quite eye-opening and takes a light hearted approach as Shipard recalls stories of her time in Germany.
“It was so much quicker than the W-League.” Shipard mentions Tameka Butt, a fellow W-League and Matildas midfielder currently plying her trade for FFC Frankfurt in the Womens Bundesliga. “Even she was sore for weeks when she first arrived – and that’s being fit out of the W-League – just getting used to how intense the training sessions were.”
One of Shipard’s more memorable moments off the field, however, comes in her decision to take part in Movember. Inspired by a conversation with a friend in Perth, Sally would spend the month of November in both 2011 and 2012 allowing people in the community, including cafe owners, businesses and even other athletes to scribble a marker-drawn moustache on her face. This campaign saw Shipard don a moustache all day for thirty days. An enviable who’s who of athletes and presenters, including sports presenter Mel McLaughlin and even the ACT Brumbies rugby union team has contributed to the cause. With almost $10,000 raised in the two years, Sally admits that there’s still a chance she might grab the marker and colour in her upper lip once more.
“The first year that I did it was really inspiring, everything was going really well in my life, with football and everything, so it was quite easy to implement. The second month that I did it…I was injured, I wasn’t playing. It was much harder to walk around with a moustache on my face AND a smile.”
You don’t have to go far to find people who didn’t understand the idea. A quick search on Youtube leads to a video entitled “Mustache Lady Playing Football”, which features a low quality clip of Shipard in action for Canberra United, marker mo’ and all. Clearly, the initiative is turning heads and raising eyebrows.
The smile on her face drops when asked if there were any awkward moments. “So many awkward situations. So many.” She recalls a day at a craft store where a lady at the counter asked about her moustache, which at that point in the day had smudged into her pores and looked like stubble.
“The lady behind the desk was like “I have to ask, what’s on your face?” I said I got a moustache drawn on, and she said “Oh I thought it was real.””
The good people at Movember have recognised Sally’s efforts, with Madeleine Farrelly from the foundation describing Sally as a “fantastic contributor” and that they “were thrilled to have her involved”. Sally even admits that a number of young women in the Canberra area have put their hand up to follow suit in the 2013 running of the event, but she remains nonplussed about other women in general taking part.
Shipard is currently in Brisbane rehabbing a knee injury at the Queensland Academy of Sport. It’s ruled her out of the Matildas side to face New Zealand in her adoptive hometown of Canberra, but she’s remaining optimistic on life away from football. Media opportunities with the likes of the ABC – including commentary for the New Zealand game – as well as a chance to write for Football Federation Australia have given her a few more decisions to make about what she wants to do.
“I think at the moment, I’m extra vulnerable because of my knees at the moment, so retirement might be sooner than later, but I also think that things will work out. Opportunities will come up at the right time, and I’ll make a decision then and there.”
It would be disappointing to see Sally Shipard, let alone anyone, leave the game they love so early. However, just from learning about her experiences, it’s clear she’s accomplished a lot. From humble beginnings in Wagga Wagga, to the blistering cold of Leverkusen, Shipard has done more than many of her male counterparts. If she does give away the game sooner rather than later, Australian football will miss one of its most charismatic and creative talents. But it’s a sure thing we haven’t seen the last of Sally Shipard just yet – Moustache or no moustache.