Hear Them Roar!

The Women’s Street Soccer Program isn’t just an excuse to have a kick – it invites women of all ages and skill levels into a safe, fun-loving community (though the kicking bit is important).

Goooaaalll!” As the ball whizzes past the goalie and hits the back of the net, there is a roar – I realise it’s coming from me. But I’m not alone: a loud cheer echoes throughout the Dandenong indoor sports centre as Leili scores, one of the few our team has managed to slip past Parisa today.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and The Big Issue’s Women’s Community Street Soccer Program is in full flight in Melbourne’s southeast. Co‑ordinator Bess Schnioffsky has three rules: “No pushing or pulling. No hands. And have fun!”

It’s cold and drizzly outside, but there’s a lot of warmth in here. “When I’m having a bad time, I know when I come here, we’ll be talking, laughing,” says Malika, a dental assistant. “It makes my life easier.” It’s been a great way for her to meet new people after coming to Australia in 2019. She shows me a Maradona move she’s learned during training – it’s impossible to get the ball off her, even though I’m twice her size. “I’m competitive,” she tells me. “But when new people come, we are flexible for everyone.”

Indeed, it’s a very welcoming vibe. “I truly love this place,” says Leili. “It helped me a lot, it’s good for your health and your mental health. I made my first friends from here.” A soccer lover since she was a child in Iran, Leili dragged her sister Sara along for their first session eight months ago. “I hated soccer,” laughs Sara. “It didn’t make any sense to me …everyone chasing the ball. But I just played, and got really interested in it. I like the environment, the exercise. You forget about everything in life, and just play.”

Quietly exhausted, I take time out on the sidelines to talk to high-school student Najia, only to discover she played for the under-17 team in Afghanistan. She grew up with a love of the beautiful game while playing against her brothers and cousins in Kabul. “I played for the national team, and then the Taliban took over, and now I am here. There, girls can’t go outside their house, not even for school, anything.” Her dream is to play for the Matildas in the 2027 Women’s World Cup.

The Community Street Soccer Program grew out of another World Cup: the Homeless World Cup (HWC). Inspired by the first games in Austria in 2003, then Big Issue editor Martin Hughes and now national Street Soccer coach George Halkias initiated a weekly kick about at a Fitzroy housing commission block, aimed at supporting people experiencing homelessness or disadvantage.

“We both knew what football had meant to us but had reservations at the time about what the priorities were for people experiencing these life challenges,” says Halkias, from Sacramento where he’s coaching the current Street Socceroos to glory at the 2023 HWC.

“We found out quick enough that sport means the same to people irrespective of life circumstances. In fact, sometimes for people excluded from community and facing adversity, it means even more.”

Those first sessions were low-key, with more volunteers than players. But the crew returned every week, and soon the numbers grew. “We saw what it meant to participants from day one. You could see the purpose they got from it…a new community that supported them and provided safety, positivity and encouragement. They said Street Soccer was the one constant in their lives.”

Almost 20 years later, Street Soccer has been played by more than 10,000 people across 25 locations around the country. In 2007, the first women’s-only program was launched in North Melbourne, recognising sports’ gender gap, with men and boys participating in organised sport at almost twice the rate of women and girls in Australia. The second women’s program started in Dandenong in 2021.

“There’s a barrier between women and sport,” says Emma Hall, who coaches the women’s team in North Melbourne. “This program welcomes anyone, no matter what level of skill. It helps people come together and socialise, but also get some exercise. I’ve seen the women grow so much – their confidence, their fitness. Some of the women have started walking daily, their diets have changed, the way they socialise has changed.”

For that reason, the women’s soccer sessions are timed around school pickups, and provide a safe space. Newly divorced, Nima discovered Street Soccer when she was looking for an activity for her son – but found one of her own.

“I never played soccer, I’m a couch potato,” she laughs. “But I wanted to join something, to make friends, to have a different life.” At first, she says, she couldn’t kick a ball. But she came back, because she loved the “adrenalin and free food,” she laughs again. Now she plays twice a week, at both the women’s and mixed sessions. Her son is here, too, having a kick or hanging out with other kids. “Normally I don’t laugh a lot, but my personality just comes out… I feel like I’m having fun.”

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the North Melbourne Women’s Street Soccer Program is kicking off. We start with some warm-up passes. I’m paired with Suzie, who’s forced to chase a few wayward balls I don’t quite send her way. But she reassures me: “I’d like to say on the record, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you learn along the way.” Suzie’s been playing Street Soccer since 2009 and she knows how the Matildas are feeling right now, having played in a World Cup herself. “I’m proud to have played for this nation,” she says of representing Australia at the 2013 Homeless World Cup in Poland. “I got the women’s fair play trophy. It meant a lot.”

There are another three World Cup champions in our midst today: Tina was a Street Socceroo at the 2019 HWC in Wales; Sha’ron wore the green and gold in Copenhagen, 2007; and then there’s long-time volunteer and real-life Matilda Alex Chidiac who’s stopped by ahead of representing Australia at the FIFA Women’s World Cup this month.

Her arrival stops the play mid-game. There are lots of hugs, and joyous rounds of “Congratulations”. “I watched the jersey presentation on TV,” Suzie tells Alex, as she hands her a “Go Chids!” card signed by all the women. Visibly moved, Alex in turn presents the group with some official Matildas merch – jerseys, shorts, socks, and a box of Favourites. Alex is also here to launch two new kits she’s designed with R-Sport. The profit will help support the Women’s Street Soccer Program.

“I know the impact the program has had on me over the years, and I wanted to give back,” she says. “The shirt is the story of my journey to the World Cup, and the program is heavily part of that. Getting to be out there meant a lot to me, and it grounded me in ways. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you’re always welcome.”

It’s that secure, positive environment that brings Amber* to the sessions. She only kicked a soccer ball for the first time six months ago. “I come from family violence, and I was just trying to get back into socialising a bit more,” she says. “The people are so friendly. It’s such a safe environment, just being with women. I feel safer.”

As we head back onto the pitch, there’s an extra buzz since Alex’s arrival. Among the players is Helen – “the matriarch,” says Alex, “who we all aspire to be”. Helen took up soccer 14 years ago, at 64, after her mother passed away. She came along with a community worker rather than go home to an empty house.

“Before I started Street Soccer, I never went out or did anything,” she says. “Since then, I’ve never stopped going out – with soccer but with other friends as well.” She represented Victoria at the Street Soccer Nationals in Sydney in 2012. “We played on top of the water, on pontoons in Darling Harbour,” she recalls. “We actually had spectators watching us, but when you’re playing, you don’t think of anybody. You’re just after that ball.”

Alex recalls another session, where Helen scored six goals against her. “I think [back to] the excitement in her face. That’s a reminder for me, as well, of having that enjoyment when I’m playing… Helen’s a big inspiration for me, and for a lot of the women here.

“Street Soccer’s not all about the football,” says Alex. “It’s about getting together, kicking a ball around and sharing that joy through sport. I think it’s a really special thing.”

* Some names have been changed.

By Amy Hetherington @amyhetherington
Published in Ed#691