Earlier this year, Nike invited women across the globe to “dream crazier”. To take a stand for what they believe in, to defy all possibilities and to show us “what crazy can do.” It wasn’t until I was standing amongst some of the world’s greatest footballers in Paris last month for the new kit unveiling, that I felt the full magnitude of what it truly meant. It would be easy to sit here and analyse the pay gap that still remains at large in sport, or even the slew of sexist remarks that is made by industry figureheads, but rather than dwelling on the facts, a celebration is upon us. And with Nike leading the way, everyone is invited.
In June of this year, sporting fanatics and football supporters will head to France if not the television set, for the occasion of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Involving 24 countries across 52 matches, one team will triumph as champions and while the competition will take centre stage, its underlying celebration of women is already seeping with aspiration. The Australian Matildas’ team cry is “never say die” and going into the tournament this Summer, it is hoped that young people will take this on for all areas of life.
“What it means is never giving up, no matter what’s happening,” Matildas captain, Sam Kerr told GRAZIA. ““Never say die” sort of explains itself but there is much more to it … it’s for the past, the present and the future and it relates to people in life as well as football. But it’s definitely a special thing for the Matildas, so hopefully young girls can connect with it in everyday life.”
It is this tenacity and energetic drive that has propelled the national team forward, and the world is taking notice. When I sat down with 18-year-old defender Ellie Carpenter and Sam Kerr in a Parisian hotel, the exuberance and explosiveness seen on the pitch was as equally encompassing as off of the field. And with sold out stadiums and unwavering support from fans, it easy to see why these young athletes are garnering respect for their chosen career.
“… there’s options for young girls to grow up and play whatever sport they want – it’s not just football,” Kerr explained. “There’s everything now and there’s more women’s teams and more and more [people] being interested.”
“I think of how far women’s football is coming in the world and especially in Australia. I feel like we’ve come so far in such a short space of time,” Carpenter added. “We’re getting sold out stadiums now when we play at home which we’ve never done before. The amount of people that are supporting the game is amazing … the support and our fans, they’re very passionate and genuine. They’re always there for us not matter if we’re winning or losing…”
And its education from the likes of Nike that has proven to be a huge player in how women’s sport is perceived. At the forefront, the #justdoit company is dedicated to backing not only football but all athletes – young and old. For over 40 years, the sporting powerhouse has encouraged women to take the pitch, the field, the pool and the court in a bid to reframe gender barriers.
Just one year after the swoosh name was established, Nike provided the cornerstone of women’s support, starting with ‘Title IX’ – a landmark bill that enforced gender equity in high school and collegiate sports. Following on from the history making events of the early ‘70s, the Nike brand remained as an icon of advocacy in the sporting realm. Throughout the ‘80s, Nike contended to gain venues where women could even compete in their chosen sports, and still, only two decades ago were women only seen in traditional disciplines such as Tennis and Gymnastics.
But it was in 1995 – 14 years ago – that illustrated just how much work needed to be done for gender equality. Framed as ‘If You Let Me Play’, the campaign depicted young children simply asking for the right to play sport. An incredibly powerful ad, it was chosen as one of the best advertisements of the year by readers of USA Today, and to this day still remains culturally relevant. There’s no denying that sport builds self-confidence, leads to stronger mental health, and overall wellbeing in both young men and women.
While the extensive history book from Nike may not be that well known, particularly for Generation Z, its names like tennis star Serena Williams, gymnast Simone Bile, snowboarder Chloe Kim and the Australian Matildas who pass on the torch for awareness. No, not just pass the torch, rather set it alight and wave the glow around for all to see. Williams won 23 Grand Slams, had a baby and then returned for another piece of the action. Defying all laws of gravity, Biles is the most decorated female gymnast in America and Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal at just 17-years-of-age.
For the Aussie team, sacrifice to follow a passion is something that both Carpenter and Kerr know all too well.
Carpenter moved from her home town of Cowra, 400 kilometres from Sydney at the age of 12 to follow her passion, and captain, Kerr has faced devastating injury in the past, something she says can be extremely “isolating”. But according to the defender, “they breed ‘em tough out [here]”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Now, the Matildas will lead Australia into the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with sights not only set on the grand trophy, but with the hopes to inspire both boys and girls, men and women hailing from all corners of the globe. And when I asked Kerr what she would tell young boys and girls facing adversity, not only in sport but in all aspects of life?
“We’ve all had times when we’re down low and not feeling the best and I’ve even had times wanted to stop playing because it wasn’t worth it mentally. But the reason I started playing football was because I loved it, so I’d say, always remember why you started and what’s important to you…”
Despite a slow start towards equality in sport, Nike, athletes and the greater sporting community are slowly but surely kicking goals towards a more inclusive future. In the meantime, fill the stadiums and back the women with the same spirit they play with. And whether its 3pm or 3am in France, you know we’ll be backing the Matildas as they take to the world stage.
“I honestly think it’s a generational thing,” Kerr stated. “Times are changing now and if you’re not up with keeping with the times then you fall behind. I feel that’s what people are like nowadays.” Carpenter then added, “[People] think women’s football is ‘la di da’, but we get knocked down pretty hard and we get straight back up.”
And that’s exactly what we all need to do.