Entering her 25th year as a professional footballer, Melissa Barbieri knows more about the highs and lows of the sport than most.
Having made her professional debut as a 16-year-old for ITC Victoria in the Women’s National Soccer League, the now 41-year-old has since captained Australia to an Asian Cup, won two Goalkeeper of the Year awards in the then-W-League and established herself as a Matildas icon. She’s also sustained career-transforming injuries, put her career on hold to start a family and, at times, had to fight for her place in the sport she loves.
To mark her unprecedented milestone in Australian football, Barbieri recently spoke to Melbourne City FC media to reflect on her career and achievements, as well as some of the lessons she’s picked up over those 25 years at the highest level.
Lesson #1: “Your body is your tool.”
Asked about her longevity and the attributes it takes to continue performing at the highest level for so many years, Barbieri was frank about what she believed to one of the key factors.
“I’ve got a huge pain threshold,” she said, “You know, that’s one key factor: I think I can play through a lot of things that normally other players can’t.”
The other half of the equation, however, is preventing those painful injuries in the first place, and it’s now become routine for Barbieri to take care of her body in ways she never considered when she was younger: “I really look after myself day in, day out, because even though I learned it late in my career, I learnt that your body is your tool and what you do daily can actually help you in the long run.”
Deciding to take your health and recovery into your own hands is essential, she explains, because there were stages of her career when the road to recovery was made even longer by the lack of support she received.
“People thought I retired in 2016, but I was injured,” she said, “I had a really significant knee injury and what it took to come back from that was a lot of hard work and resilience, but you had to do it all on your own because you’re a female footballer.
“I had no club backing me, I had no one telling me what to do or anything, I had no guidance. I had a lot of people helping, but really not that money-backing.”
Lesson #2: “The hurdles women face.”
Her anecdote strikes a familiar chord, and the topic of a historical lack of support for professional female athletes was something she touched on again as a realisation she had after the birth of her daughter Holly in 2013.
She started, “I didn’t realise how much of a hurdle wanting to have a child would be for me and I had to do it so late in my career that it ended up being a hurdle for me to have more children, so I don’t want players coming through the ranks now to think they have to choose one or the other.
“A lot of the hurdles women face, the fact that we have to look after the family, we have the children and then when we need to do something career-wise, it’s always us that sacrifices what we’re doing, so we need more opportunities and more family-friendly environments.
“In modern day and modern times, women should be able to have maternity leave, have that covered, be able to return and have all the instruments or the resources they need to keep plying their trade.”
Fortunately, there’s a current model example of this, in Barbieri’s eyes: “Seeing what Katrina Gorry has done, just signing her newest contract in Sweden, is phenomenal and I’m hoping that she’s going to get all the support she needs over there.”
Lesson #3: “Yes, it is a real job.”
Another benefit of Barbieri’s unmatched time in the game has been her witnessing of the changes in attitudes and perceptions towards female athletes as women’s competitions became commercialised and legitimised. She recounted a story of being misidentified as a volleyballer or netballer in the past just because she was a female athlete in uniform, whereas now her status as a footballer at Melbourne City FC is immediately recognised by the public.
It was just one small observation that she had made amongst a larger trend of the increasing professionalisation of women’s football, and she’s glad that her younger teammates can perceive the sport as a genuine career pathway.
“Just being able to tell the youngsters now coming through that this is a job, this is something that you can do,” she said, “A lot of people still think it’s not a real job, I go ‘yes, it is a real job, it’s real money, it pays the bills’.
“And then also it’s unfair because of how much fun we have, so that’s the only reason why people don’t think it’s a real job.”
Where once a teenage Barbieri hadn’t been aware of the possibility of playing football outside of her local boys’ team, young girls now have idols, opportunities and pathways to have a career playing the sport they love.
“The opportunities for girls all over the world is just huge,” Barbieri said, “All the big clubs in the world have actually started to say ‘you know what? This is lucrative, these girls can play and we’re going to back them’.”
Lesson #4: “Stop and look around.”
Reflecting on her 25-year career, Barbieri realised that many of its defining moments she could have never appreciated for their significance at the time and that only with hindsight had she been able to see all of the pieces of the puzzle.
Finishing off with a lesson that she would pass on to younger generations of footballers, it was this concept of being present with individual moments and proud of how far you’ve come that underpinned her closing message:
“My advice for the youngsters coming through would be just have fun, just really, really enjoy it.
“Stop and look around and see how far you’ve come every now and then, because sometimes when you’re looking to the future all the time you forget to look back and see how far you’ve come.
“Don’t let success go to your head or failure go to your heart.”