By HAREEM KHAN
THE FADED grey head of the snake travels up from her ankle, inching up the back of her calf.
It stops just below the knee, creating a strange divide in her skin. To onlookers, it’s nothing more than a scar.
But to footballer Alex Busch, this snake is much more than a simple surgical blemish – it’s a reminder of what could have been.
“The game sucks you in,” she says.
“You think it’s just a hobby you do on the side, and then it consumes you, and you lose sight of everything else you need to balance your life.”
Still clad in her Box Hill United training jacket and neon-pink football boots, Busch is just one of the state’s 12,000 female soccer players. However, she is one of the handful who get the opportunity to play the game at the state’s semi-professional level, in the Women’s Premier League (WPL).
She is also one of the many women who have lost their careers to injuries and mismanagement in the sport.
Unlike men who play semi-professional soccer in the National Premier League (NPL), women often go unpaid in their equivalent.
Full-throttle action in the W-League.
“It gets really intense. If you want to make it big, you have to put in the hours.
“You can’t just put in what’s required of you, you have to do the Monday, Wednesday and Friday training, and then kick a ball with your friends or coaches too.”
Her lips curl into a wry smile.
“And then you have to come back to play the real game.”
Sitting outside a café in the quietest of suburban streets, Melissa Barbieri speaks passionately in the morning chill. Once captain of the Matildas – Australia’s national women’s soccer team – she now coaches the senior levels of the Box Hill United WPL team.
“I would just like to walk into a football club … if you’re going to call it the women’s team, you should also call it the men’s team. Not the football team and the women’s football team.
“It’s a sport managed by men, catered for men,” Barbieri says.
The Matildas have some impressive skills.
While soccer is the most popular sport for young women in Australia, the number of women dropping out of the sport at higher levels is skyrocketing.
“A lot of girls quit football, simply because it takes too much time and effort, and it’s not rewarding.
“These are girls who are actually good enough to come through to senior levels, and never get the opportunity to because they have to work other jobs to support themselves, and the time constraints make life too difficult for them.”
Even at a national level, the Matildas earn a fraction of what their male counterparts – the Socceroos – are paid.
Each Matilda is paid $500 in match fees at the highest level. The Socceroos are paid a match fee of $7500 each.
“The pay at the national level is shit. The pay at the domestic level is non-existent, the issues are endless,” Barbieri says.
“These women [in WPL] might be right on the forefront of national selection. They could be one season off having the best season of their life, and then playing in W-League and making their way through.’
“It is quite critical at that point – yeah you feel like you’re butting your head against a wall for all those years, but all you need is to step up that 10 per cent and it changes your career.”
As a proud feminist, Barbieri identifies as a mother, an athlete and a smart businesswoman. Her amber eyes threaten to bulge out of their sockets as she talks about her time playing WPL.
“When I had a child, I was told that women who have children don’t come back to play football. So I lost all my scholarships, I lost my Australian contract, I lost everything.”
Her left foot furiously taps a leg of her chair.
“And here I was, wanting a return to WPL at the very least, and I was told I wouldn’t be paid, and in fact I would have to pay a $2000 registration fee to join.”
“I wanted to come and play WPL again, and I got told none of the clubs wanted me. Sure, some of the clubs already had goalkeepers, but the ones that didn’t have goalkeepers put me in the too-hard basket.”
Melissa Barbieri in action for Melbourne Victory.
She raises her empty mug to her mouth, her grip tightening.
“They would question my dedication to the sport now I that I had a child.
“But let me ask you, how many men and fathers are out there playing soccer, and have they ever had their dedication to the sport pitted against their love for their family?”
THE SHRILL sound of the whistle fills the night, only to be broken by shrieks of both support and anger from parents in the crowd. It’s a Friday night game, and Box Hill United is playing Casey.
Thump. A boot hits ball.
Busch is sitting on the sidelines today. Her furrowed brow suggests it isn’t a feeling she’s used to.
“I’ve just gone from never getting benched, to being too injured to play a single game this season.”
The greyish scales of the snake slithering up her calf gleam under the ground’s floodlights.
“It’s called compartment syndrome – I got it from running on the artificial pitches, where a lot of the higher games are played. It destroyed my legs, I had to get surgery to correct it,” she says.
“All sportsmen have different injuries. But my injury didn’t pay me, and never will pay me.
“I had to miss university. I had to defer because of my surgery – I was bedridden, doped up on drugs for months. I couldn’t work, and if I wasn’t living at home, I’d be completely ruined.”
The final whistle blows climactically.
Box Hill United have won their fourth game of the season. Ponytailed teammates, old and new, come to share hot chips and warm embraces with their ex-captain.
One of the younger girls, Hayley, slides onto the bench next to Busch as the group of girls thins.
“I started when I was 7, I played in a boys’ team for four years because they didn’t even have a girls’ team for my age group,” she reminds Busch.
“I played with the boys – it was always, ‘you’ve been beaten by a girl, that made me so mad’. I got top goal scorer against men!”
A sense of excitement fills her voice.
“I definitely want to continue with soccer and play at a professional level – maybe I can move to America!”
“Why America, what’s wrong with Australia?” a passing coach playfully snarls at the pair.
“Well, if you paid us there would be nothing wrong with Australia!” Busch shoots back.
STEFAN Georgiou’s shoulders tighten as the rain comes down hard. His eyes narrow, zoning in on the black-and-white ball placed between him and the goal net.
The dampness under his feet doesn’t stop him, but only pushes him on further.
He wears the same Box Hill United kit as the girls playing at the WPL game just a few nights ago. However, a major difference separates them – he plays NPL and is paid for his time playing soccer.
“So for me, at my level, I earn about $150 per game. There are a few conditions to getting paid, but we don’t pay any registration fees, which the women find themselves paying.”
In WPL, women pay fees of up to $2000 just to play, while NPL players are exempt. Most of the fees acquired from WPL players go towards running NPL games.
“Well, I guess we get more crowd numbers at NPL games, and people have to pay to watch them, whereas WPL games are free entry for all,” Georgiou says.
“I’m not sure if that justifies their treatment though.”
However, Georgiou says most NPL players are unaware of how their female counterparts are being treated.
“It’s really something you don’t think about, which is dangerous, considering female players are just as good, if not better than some males.
“I grew up playing with a player, Ashley Brown, and now she plays for the Matildas. Just because she’s a woman doesn’t change anything – she would come down to training and teach me some new tricks.”
IN her home in Aspendale, Alex Busch lies on her stomach, pouring over a soft cover copy of An Introduction to Accounting.
“I don’t know if I could ever justify going back to soccer,” she says.
“And it sucks, because I love it so much. But if I have to choose between a one-off gamble and a stable career, of course I’ll pick a stable career.
“And I have male friends who play those state divisions think they’re better than me just because they’re getting paid, and I gave up.”
She holds a pen between her teeth, pausing for a second.
“No, they’re not better than me, they’re just lucky to be men. Most girls I know who play WPL could kick a guy’s ass. ”
The grey snake wrapped around her leg lies dormant, still in a state of unrest.