Melissa Barbieri’s Fight to be Mother and Matilda
By Sam Squiers
When Melissa Barbieri pulls on the green and gold for Australia at the FIFA Women’s World Cup this month, a familiar sense of pride will wash over her. She knows it well now, this is, her fourth world cup. But this time the feeling sinks deeper.
Just two years earlier, some thought her career was over. Not because of injury, not because of her age, nor diminishing ability…because she became a mother.
Melissa, or Bubs as she’s known to her teammates, has had to fight the system every step of the way to return to the top.
“Initially when I came out of having the baby I had a coach and a system that didn’t look favourably on women who had children,” Melissa tells Sportette.
“So it was almost like it didn’t matter what I looked like or how I played or anything, I had a stigma attached with that personnel.”
She’s referring to 2013, Melissa had just given birth to her first child Holly. Just three years earlier, she’d been named captain of the Australian Women’s Soccer Team, the Matildas, led them to the World Cup and to AFC Asian Cup glory, the first Australian team, male or female to win the prestigious tournament. She was a veteran with 84 caps for Australia and an Olympian.
But despite all her achievements she found herself without a team just six weeks after Holly was born.
Melissa was back training and another 11 weeks later, she was playing, but without a place in her former side, she was forced to search elsewhere to continue her professional playing career.
“After I had the baby I wanted to come back and I emailed all the clubs and no one wanted me because my home team (Melbourne Victory) already had their goalkeeper already,” Melissa tells Sportette.
“I became desperate and said to the clubs, ‘look I don’t need any money I just need a run’. And it ended up being Adelaide United who gave me a go.”
With Holly only months old, Melissa was forced to live in Adelaide with her sister-in-law and fly her mum in and out from Melbourne to help care for Holly while she travelled for away games.
Struggling financially, Melissa started selling all her Matildas memorabilia to raise the desperately needed funds needed to support herself.
She raised $8000 from the memorabilia sale, but even then refused to keep it all for herself .
“I took $5000 and gave the rest to the girls (her teammates)”.
Melissa’s self-belief soon paid off, awarded the W-League Keeper of the Year Award at the end of that season, but a bigger reward was to come with a change in the Matildas coaching staff.
“When the new personnel came in it (selection) was about how well you played”.
“I don’t think I came back thinking I would go to a World Cup but it definitely popped up on the radar as soon as I was selected into the national team again.”
Two seasons after her comeback, Melissa is about to embark on her fourth World Cup. Selected as the second keeper, it’s an incredible reward for someone who has fought so hard for the sport she loves.
“I do immensely feel super proud of myself and I’m also proud of my family,” Melissa tells Sportette allowing a moment of rare reflection.
At 35, Melissa is the oldest Matilda on tour, but says the age difference doesn’t change anything.
“My roomie (Hayley Raso) is 20 years old and we have a blast,”
“I’m not a mother figure I’m like a guide but not too much out in front that they feel awkward around me.”
Extraordinary are the lengths Melissa has had to go through to return to her profession after becoming a mum.
Even in her second season with Adelaide she lived in Melbourne with her husband for three days every week and flew to South Australia for the other four in order to lessen the disruption for Holly. But Melissa is quick to point out that she’s not the only athlete to overcome hurdles.
“Yeah that’s just women’s sport the system is against most of us unfortunately. A lot of girls are struggling just to make ends meet. My plight is no different to any of the other girls in the W-League,” Melissa tells Sportette.
“Sometimes they (female footballers) choose petrol over food. So it wasn’t like I was the only one, it’s just what women have to do to play the sport they love.”
There’s just as much hesitation to ask about the ‘r’ word, as Melissa is to consider it, but after working so hard to return to her sport, you get the feeling farewelling it isn’t something in her sights. And the sport will always be in her blood.
“Oh look the eyes are firmly on the World Cup what happens after that is all in my loins,” Melissa says while laughing.
“You know you’ll feel it. You know you got to feel it. I can’t say anything now because I don’t know. I couldn’t retire whole hog I can’t see that happening, I still love playing so much.”
“I couldn’t pull the pin totally.”