The people you meet at Olympic Games

The people you meet: Melissa Barbieri, Matildas’ keeper

Roy Hay

Today’s match is at Old Trafford, home of the mighty Manchester United, which necessitated a trip across the Pennines from Newcastle. My wife and I set out early by tram from the centre of town so that we could get a ticket for her for the game between the United States of America and its ideological rival the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the women’s tournament Group G. After snaring the ticket we walked back to the Trafford pub on the corner of Sir Matt Busby Way and sat down for a bite to eat.

Next to me was a young woman with a Canadian bag watching Canada play Sweden in Group F. Sitting side on the face looked familiar but it was my wife who spotted immediately that it was Melissa Barbieri. So you go half-way round the world to meet the Matildas’ most capped keeper, a girl from Templestowe, who is doing her coaching badges and roughing it around the United Kingdom to see the later stages of the women’s tournament at this Olympic Games.

Incidentally, earlier in the day at the National Sports Museum, I had run into Dr Rob Hess, from Victoria University, who has just published an article of mine on football in Australia in the 1850s and a chapter in a book on the history of the women’s game in this country. But back to Melissa.

She is very impressed by the United States team for its mental toughness and its self-belief. ‘They are not as technically skilled as the Swedes or as tactically aware, but they always believe that they can win and that they are going to win,’ she said. She agrees that the East Asian women have gone ahead by leaps and bounds and Australia will have to lift its game even further to continue to keep pace with them.

We talked about the game and its history and she insisted, as she has done on several occasions, that Australian women want to be recognised as footballers, not women footballers. Their performances in recent years warrant that appreciation, not least their triumph in the most recent Asian championships. It is such a pity that they were unable to dislodge Japan, South and North Korea from qualification for this tournament.

I asked Melissa about her protégé and successor as Melbourne Victory keeper Brianna Davey. She launched into a bitter attack on the requirement to train on artificial surfaces pointing out the injuries which occur, particularly to goalkeepers when they have to throw themselves around on astroturf. ‘Last season, Brianna could not train between games because of osteosis as a result of injuries. She was just playing in games.’

After today’s game she is off in the reverse direction to Newcastle for a quarter-final match. She admitted to being a Manchester United supporter so today at Old Trafford will be something to remember for one of Australia’s genuine stars of the game.

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