Female footballers at Port Melbourne SC devastated, local council ends dream of FIFA World Cup legacy

AFL and Essendon club legend James Hird has thrown his support behind the female soccer players at Port Melbourne Soccer Club after their involvement in the 2023 Women’s World Cup was ripped out from beneath them.

Less than six months after being selected by FIFA as one of 13 official training venues for the tournament, Port Melbourne SC was surprised and devastated to learn that City of Port Phillip council had withdrawn the site.

A planned upgrade to facilities at the JL Murphy soccer pitch as part of FIFA’s legacy investment in women’s football was agreed to by the council, only to be reneged this week, a decision described as “heartbreaking” by Sharks player Gabrielle Vittori.

The club would have required upgrades to the pitch and facilities in order to meet FIFA training site standards.(Getty Images: Michael Dodge)

“They signed an agreement … [but] we found out only a couple of days ago the council withdrew its support. They went directly to FIFA without contacting the club, its women, its participants, anyone,” Vittori told The Ticket.

“That’s just heartbreaking for us.”

Vittori said local community support had always been strong and following the success of England’s Lionesses at this month’s European championships there was a buzz around next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“It was magnificent, it really shone a light on how amazing women’s sport is, and to withdraw the funding for our venue to be a training facility is just gobsmacking for us,” she said.

“I speak on behalf of the girls I play with, my daughter’s on my team, I speak for my club and I speak for the girls and women in our municipality who are consistently overlooked by our council as a sport and as a community that wants to develop and grow.

“I’m gobsmacked by it all, I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

The council had previously celebrated the selection of its site, stating on its website that FIFA’s selection of its facilities was a “great recognition of the council’s focus and support for female sport participation and a reward for our desire to improve facilities that can support inclusive opportunities” .

The sudden U-turn by the council has led others to question whether the council’s commitment was ever genuine.

Hird has been part of the Port Melbourne sport community for the past five or six years through his three sons playing there.

A man sits in between two young boys with blonde hair
Former Essendon coach James Hird, whose sons (pictured) play locally, has criticized the council’s withdrawal from the site.(Getty Images: Scott Barbour)

He says the council’s decision is short-sighted.

“It’s a great community club. It’s 50 to 60 years old and a wonderful place,” he said.

“When it was announced three years ago that Port Melbourne was going to be one of the training centers for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the excitement around the club was huge, and particularly for the women involved.

“Behind the Olympics, this is one of the biggest sporting events we’ve ever had in this country […] not just for the community but for the young girls and boys who can look up to these players and spark some sort of interest in the game.

“The male game is at capacity, but for women in football, the opportunities are just growing more and more. I think it’s a bit of a slap in the face, really, for not just the women but everyone, that the council have pulled their support, unbeknownst to the club.

“The club found out on Wednesday by chance, because the council hadn’t let them know. It’s a strange occurrence and one that everyone at the club and in the area is wondering why.”

The chief executive of Port Phillip council, Peter Smith, said in a statement to the ABC that upgrades to the ground were thought to be achievable until June this year.

“FIFA said the installation of a $500,000 drainage system on Pitch 1 was required for the grounds to remain as a training venue,” Mr Smith said.

“FIFA also required a lighting upgrade costing $120,000 and improvements to make bathroom facilities more ‘female friendly’.