In primary school, encouraged by my brother’s soccer coach who had seen me kicking a ball around with what was probably very middling skill, I joined the local soccer club. The afternoon of the tryouts – to test which grade I’d be placed in – I excitedly velcroed on my shin pads, pulled up my long socks and laced my brand new soccer boots. My parents drove me to the local playing field, where I joined the gaggle of boys. Yes, just boys – I was the lone female, the only girl my age in the club’s catchment who wanted to play soccer.

What followed was two hours of what felt like torture for a 10-year-old. I was shunned from the beginning, because teams were separated by “shirts” and “no shirts”; my team clearly could not be “no shirts”, and those young men made it known they weren’t happy (hadn’t the organisers ever heard of bibs?!). No one passed me a ball or even spoke to me – even the boys in my class at school; it was made abundantly clear I didn’t belong. Even worse? None of the adults did a thing about it. I left, crying, and refused to return for a second round of humiliation, leaving my parents out of pocket for the kit I never wore again (sorry Mum and Dad).

Women have traditionally been underrepresented in sports at all levels, deterred for myriad reasons. Even those girls who do play sports into adulthood at a professional level are nowhere near as handsomely rewarded as men – the gender pay gap in sports sits around double the national average. In the late ’90s, when my short-lived soccer career rose and rapidly fell, I can’t remember ever seeing women on TV playing sports other than tennis. All the girls around me played netball or participated in physical culture (the most nebulous, not to mention hard to monetise, of after-school activities). Dancing was a big thing.

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This is why it’s been gratifying to see trends in women’s sport change – and fast. Last year, seven out of 10 Australians reported watching more women’s sports than pre-2020, and, wonderfully, two out of five women’s sports viewers said they’ve been inspired by what they’ve seen to take up a sport themselves. Women’s AFL has been gaining more viewers year on year, and the number of girls playing sports is rising so quickly it could soon be on par with boys.

And now, seeing the Matildas absolutely smashing it at the World Cup – not to mention witnessing packed-out stadiums and the fact that even the least sporty of us now know the name “Sam Kerr” – it feels like women’s sport is finally getting its due respect. Seeing crowds congregating in parks to watch every game despite the cold; scrolling through social media feeds celebrating goals, wins and Kerr’s highly anticipated return to the field (phew!); and hearing that a record number of viewers tuned into the Matildas’ victory over Denmark on Monday night – more than every State of Origin game or rugby league grand final since 2016 – has felt like an absolute game changer.

It’s heartening to see such an immense shift between my experience of the ’90s and the contemporary popularity of the sport among women. To know young women are seeing “the beautiful game” as a normalised pursuit is incredibly satisfying, and hopefully means people – including those who fund women’s sports and pay players’ wages – will finally begin to take girls in sports seriously. And if the skill level on show and the million-plus punters attending the tournament don’t convince them, perhaps the fact hosting the World Cup is injecting $568 million into the Australian economy might do the trick.