By Catherine Cannuli

I grew up in Western Sydney in a traditional Italian household. My family followed Marconi and woke up at stupid hours to watch the Italian national team play on TV.

All I ever wanted to do was play football; I never had a Plan B. But the game was never easy. As a young girl, it was a challenge just to get into a team. Luckily, my father had an affiliation with the Marconi club, so I started training with the boys and got selected. 

When I turned 13, the Association said that I couldn’t play with the boys anymore. I had to go from the juniors straight into the Marconi Senior Women’s team. It was a huge step, but it was my only option if I wanted to continue playing. 

When I was 16, I was at the NSW Institute of Sport and had been selected for the Young Matildas. I was offered a scholarship to go to Baylor University in Texas. I remember it like it was yesterday. The coach flew out from Texas and came to our house. He handed me a Baylor University jersey with my name and No. 13 printed on the back.

My parents were from the old school. Mum worked in cafes and takeaway stores, dad ran car-parts and concreting businesses. Financially, they weren’t in a position to come with me. To be honest, they weren’t keen on their 17-year-old daughter moving to the next suburb, let alone the other side of the world. 

They said no, and that was the first part of my dream shattered.

I kept at it. I played for my state in the old Women’s national league and started scoring some goals. In 2004, I won the WNSL Golden Boot award and played for the Young Matildas at the Youth World Cup in Thailand. 

The more I played, the more roadblocks I’d see in female football. There were all these barriers that I’d pushed through as a young girl in boys’ teams, but it just seemed like it was getting harder and harder to be part of the sport.

I was supposed to go to Russia for the 2006 World Youth Cup – it would have been my third World Cup in four years – but by that time I’d had enough. I was fed up. I’d lost my spark and my love for the game. So I planned a trip to Europe with some mates and disappeared. 

While I was away from the game, the inaugural W-League season kicked off. It was so cool to finally see women’s football being recognised. I’d played in the old national league, but I could see the W-League was much more professional. I started to feel that competitive spirit stirring inside me.

I decided to start again in the NSW state league. One of my old coaches, Alen Stajcic, found out and told me to come to Sydney FC training at Olympic Park for a 5:30am start. I hesitated at first, thinking, do I really want to go back to that life? 

But I dragged myself to Olympic Park and as soon as I walked into the change rooms, it was like I’d never left. I saw all these faces who I’d grown up with. I signed on and it wasn’t long before I got called up to the Matildas. In 2011, I made my full international debut (and scored my first goal) for the Matildas in a two-match series against New Zealand. 

That never would have happened without the launch of the W-League. In fact, I can say for sure that the W-League changed my life.

The standards had lifted but it still wasn’t easy. Back then we didn’t have a minimum wage, so we put in long days juggling football with our day jobs. Some mornings, you’d turn up to work first thing, leave at 4pm for training and get home around 9pm. I have massive respect for the players who did that for no money in those early years. 

At the time, I worked in a family-owned beauty salon in Liverpool, so I was fortunate to have flexible hours. But every season the demands of us as athletes got higher and higher. Physically, I was absolutely gone. 

In 2014, after several years with Sydney FC, Brisbane Roar and the Western Sydney Wanderers, I decided to retire. It was a very emotional decision, because I was enjoying my football and loved being in that environment. But I had the perfect ending. I scored a penalty for the Wanderers with literally the last kick of a Sydney derby. 

Within 12 months, the first Collective Bargaining Agreement for the Matildas came out and every year since then the wages and conditions for female players have gone up. I sometimes wonder if I held on, I might still be playing now.

In saying that, I’m definitely into the next chapter of my football career. At the moment I’m juggling two jobs as Technical Director of the Women’s Program for the Southern Districts Football Association and the SD Raiders NPL side, and Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League Women. The workload is a struggle sometimes, especially now that I’ve got a newborn baby at home. But I get to live in the same area where I grew up and go to work every day for a club that feels like a representation of where I’m from and how I’ve been brought up. 

At the moment, I walk into the Wanderers office and I’ll have Ian Crook on one side and Carl Robinson on the other as well as all our staff from different parts of the club. So if you’ve got a football question or problem, the discussions are always fantastic. 

I used to say that as a player we’ve got to have our boxing gloves on. I realise now that as a coach you’ve just got to find bigger gloves, because you’re fighting even more battles. As females, we’re still constantly fighting for professionalism, and we can’t stop until A-League Women players and coaches are in full time environments. 

There’s still a lot of early mornings and late nights, but every year gets better and better as the women’s game grows.