Lydia Williams’s emotional Matildas farewell showed the indelible mark she has left on Australian sport

Lydia Williams’s emotional Matildas farewell showed the indelible mark she has left on Australian sport
  • PublishedJune 5, 2024

It started with footprints.

Dark patterns pressed into red earth. A trail of scuffs and swirls sculpted into warm sand. 

Lydia Williams, a young Aboriginal kid, running barefoot through the deserts of Western Australia, a ball in her hands, leaving a mark — her mark — with every step she took.

This is a memory that the Matildas’ veteran goalkeeper — who bid farewell to her home crowd in last night’s victory over China — has returned to a lot recently. 

As retirement has slowly edged over her horizon, Williams has spent the past while looking back across her life, thinking about its small beginnings, and just how much bigger and brighter things have become.

A woman in a grey soccer uniform and gloves
Lydia Williams is one of the last remaining Matildas from a time past. But she has carried this team into its bright new future.(Getty Images: Gualter Fatia)

Over her 19-year Matildas career, Williams has seen and done more than what most of us could ever dream of, crisscrossing the globe and competing for her country in more major tournaments than almost any other footballer Australia has produced.

In the course of doing so, as she has embarked on that journey outward, she has also slowly travelled inward, discovering and rediscovering herself, shaping herself into the person she wants to be.

That process started a while ago when she first began to give shape to the feeling that maybe her sky was growing darker, the end of her Matildas career peering over the lip of the future. 

And so, in preparation to step forward, she stepped backwards; returning to the sands of her childhood for a documentary about the Matildas that came out before the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and for a book she wrote about it called Saved!!!, which was not about what she did in football so much as what football did for her.

Footprints was where it began for “the kid that grew up in the desert and fell in love with football,” walking into a sport that desperately needed someone to carry it forward, and who now walks out of it having brought it somewhere not even she imagined was possible, leaving a trail that generations of players will now follow.

Having started her career in 2005, Williams was part of women’s football when women’s football had nothing.

Her first game, a 3-0 loss against South Korea, received such little coverage that it barely exists in the official record, its significance kept alive largely through the minds and mementos of those who were there.

Her memories of that match are of thundering rain and the strain of her calves after being forced to stand up in the dressing room because they had no chairs to sit on.

There are a lot of memories like that. Returning to Australia after winning the country’s first-ever Asian Cup trophy in 2010, only to find a handful of friends and family, and maybe a camera or two, waiting for them at the airport.

Standing in front of a bundle of microphones in 2015, announcing that the Matildas would be going on strike — the first collective action ever taken by a women’s national sports team in Australia — to protest the lack of financial support and contract security from Football Federation Australia.

Jumping from club to club, continent to continent, and seeing that same lack of everything everywhere: money, staff, facilities, equipment, fields, fans, media, care, support, belief.

How must she feel now, peering up into the sold-out stands of Stadium Australia, the Matildas’ 15th consecutive sold-out game on home soil, her name emblazoned on the backs of purple goalkeeper jerseys sprinkled throughout the sea of yellow and green, looking back at all that? Seeing the footprints that led her here?

A banner of a woman soccer player wearing a purple shirt held up in a crowd with the player posing in front
Lydia Williams poses in front of a banner after the win over China. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

Maybe she went to that place again, when the roar of 76,000 people fell silent as she was wrapped in a cloak made of red kangaroo skin, the cheers and applause giving way to the chirps of cicadas and a gently crackling fire and the sand between her toes.

“It’s really crazy just to see the drive and support of the women’s game,” she said the day before their 2-0 win over China on Monday.

“The trajectory in the last year, in how we’ve grown the game … we were reminiscing back here, Tony [Gustavsson’s] first time playing here was against the USA and it was 35,000 [people], and we were stoked about that. And that’s only literally two years ago.

“It’s a credit to everyone involved doing that, but from that, it’s our performance on the pitch, it’s how we prepare, it’s how we get the most important supplies and things that we need for us.

“The one thing that I really wanted was that this team fights for what they believe in, and we’ve seen that, throughout the years, it’s okay to fight for things and to have that support.

“The Matildas as a whole: it’s not just one player, it’s not just one staff member, it’s not just one organisation. It’s everything. The Matildas are the fans, a family, and everyone in between. I think we’ve seen that grow throughout this last year.”

Williams, along with Australia’s most-capped footballer Clare Polkinghorne, are the last two remnants of a time past; a time when nobody knew what a “Matilda” was or why they mattered. 

A veteran of five World Cups, six Asian Cups, and two (potentially three) Olympic Games across 104 appearances for her team, Williams’s impact on the field is difficult to overstate.

Two women athletes, one wearing all red and the other wearing yellow, sit together on the grass
Williams and Polkinghorne have experienced all the hopes and heartbreaks a World Cup can bring together.(Getty Images: Maddie Meyer/FIFA)

She was the team’s custodian during their slow awakening in the public consciousness from 2017 when the Matildas began to beat the world-beaters and develop the “never say die” motto that is now a part of their literal and figurative fabric.

She was part of the old guard who helped usher through this exciting new “golden generation” of players, ensuring they stayed connected to the Matildas of the past, living and playing with the same values and beliefs of inclusion and respect that the team now radiates.

And she did it as one of the Matildas’ many First Nations women, a history that extends all the way back to its first formative teams, representing one verse in a longer song of pioneering Aboriginal women athletes whose very visibility carried, and continues to carry, its own kind of significance, its own kind of legacy.

That legacy was brought full circle on Monday night when, in front of a record-breaking crowd at the same stadium where Cathy Freeman ran that race, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley emerged from the guard of honour to present Williams with a specially-made Booka — a cloak — made of the skins of Williams’s totem: four red desert kangaroos.

Designed by Western Australian artist Lea Taylor, who already had deep connections to the Williams family such that she personally knew Williams’s dad, Ron, the Booka featured designs symbolising Williams’s identity, family, and country.

There were kangaroo prints for herself, and crow’s feet and river rocks for her dad. 

There were kangaroo paw flowers and banksia pods for where she grew up in the deserts near Kalgoorlie, and golden wattle for the country she represented everywhere. 

There was an engraving of the hills of Canberra, where her football career began, and of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where it will all come to an end.

She had no idea it was going to happen. She thought it would be some small ceremony; a video on the screen. Which is the kind of modesty and humbleness that someone who still remembers what it was like to have nothing.

But to have Goolagong-Cawley, a reported Matildas super-fan, wrap it around her shoulders “was probably the moment that tipped me over, emotion-wise,” she said afterwards.

“It was a lovely moment. I think a lot of sporting women in Australia just want to leave the game better than when they first arrived in it, and don’t probably realise the impact of how they have shaped the culture of not only women’s sport but also Australian sport.

“To receive that from such an icon — a legend of tennis — is just absolutely, really humbling. An Indigenous woman that’s represented the country and her culture and done so much … and to share that moment as Indigenous women in front of a packed stadium of people that fell in love with football.

“Yeah, that was pretty special.”

Just before half-time, Williams gave way for Mackenzie Arnold, her successor, the Matildas’ next custodian, the pair sharing a long hug — “a moment of respect and admiration for each other, of where we both came from and where we are now” — on the sidelines.

Monday night was, as she had said a day earlier, “a closing of the circle”. 

For the rest of us, it was not just about saying farewell to a team as they embark on their Olympic journey in a few weeks’ time, but about saying goodbye to this person, this player, without whom the Matildas may not be where they are at all.

Two soccer players wearing purple hug on the sidelines of a game with a big crowd in the background
In her final act on the field, Lydia Williams passed the baton to Mackenzie Arnold.(Getty Images: Andy Cheung)

Just as it started with footprints, it ended with footprints. 

Those embroidered in the Booka that Goolagong-Cawley hugged around her shoulders. 

Those that she left imprinted in the grass of the stadium where Cathy Freeman ran. 

Those that she created as she walked off the pitch for the final time, leaving a trail for generations of footballers to follow.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *