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for the tournament, Port Melbourne SC was surprised and devastated to learn that City of Port Phillip council had withdrawn the site.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.
“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.
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’.
These three non-negotiable requirements totalled $700,000.
“While FIFA offered to contribute $100,000 towards these drainage works, there is currently no council budget to make up that shortfall.
“Compounding the issue, it is highly unlikely that we would be able to meet FIFA’s deadline for the drainage to be completed.
“We are, however already undertaking the female-friendly changing room upgrades and our lighting is suitable for the community sport.”
Mr Smith said the council understood the disappointment of local clubs.
Gabrielle Vittori said if the council was genuine in its support for women’s sport it would have looked elsewhere for funding support.
She had a private conversation with FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura to express her concerns.
“It was a private conversation. I won’t go into what she said however I did my voice concerns exactly like I am with you right now and she did take interest in what was going on,” Vittori said.
“I know the council did not go to state government or any other institution to request funding.
“We’ve been involved in conversations regarding other facilities in the future and federal government representatives have been involved in those meetings and they’ve been so thrilled at the thought of developing facilities in our municipality to support not just the sport but women as well .
“Our council did not apply for any grants or any assistance in funding from the state government.”
The council confirmed it had not looked elsewhere to cover the shortfall in the cost of upgrades.
“It’s incredibly disappointing. I started playing this game at the age of 44, so well beyond the age you see most girls joining,” Vittori said.
“My daughter played up until about the age of seven but, because of the lack of facilities, the lack of support, she didn’t want to play with boys anymore.
“She wanted to play with girls.
“We didn’t have the facilities to include more girls and grassroots teams.
“She’s since come back and now she’s playing in my team, which is a little bit disappointing because she’s 15, I’m 53. She needs to be playing with girls of her own age.
“This is not about me, this is about the girls that I play with that are much younger. This is about the young girls that are coming through in our community that want to play for years and years.”
In a short statement FIFA said it was committed to ensuring the provision of pristine pitches for the World Cup — a fact known to all councils who submitted a bid to be selected as a training site.
With regards to the selection of training sites in host countries, we can confirm that all prospective training sites and local authorities were consulted at the start of, and throughout, the ongoing selection process and agreed to meet international standards that will be required for the 32 teams who will participate at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Following regular discussions with the local stakeholders, FIFA has taken note of the decision by The City of Port Phillip to withdraw JL Murphy Reserve as a prospective training site for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.
While the council’s decision appears to be final, Vittori and the local football community say they are prepared to fight on hoping the girls and women of Port Melbourne SC can have their ground returned to the FIFA Women’s World Cup legacy program.
“This is the great thing about the Port Melbourne community: they never lie down, they’ve got a strong committee and really strong people,” Hird said.
“On Sunday, there’s going to be a rally at the club to draw attention to this, to try and get it back on track and see if we can find the money somewhere.
“It would be very, very sad if the Port Melbourne football club can’t host a team and leave a legacy for girls and women in the community around such a great event.”