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‘Demanding respect’: African-Australian women finding pride and purpose through football

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Vivid colours, loud Afro music, the sound of laughter and the movement of feet brought African youth together across several weekends in December in western Sydney, to celebrate their culture through soccer.

Since 1999, the African Cup NSW has been an exhibition of the local African diaspora’s athletic prowess and its diverse heritage.

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But, for the first time, in 2021, the tournament broke barriers by establishing a full women’s competition featuring six nations: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Egypt, and inaugural champions Sierra Leone.

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It was a significant step in the right direction, bringing joy to women in the African community and those from other cultural backgrounds, to display their skills, talent, and to feel a sense of belonging.

So why did it take so long to find a place for women on the pitch?

Making room for women in football

Major reasons for not establishing the women’s tournament prior to 2021 included funding and the difficulties in finding women who were willing to play.

Petronila Ada was central to changing that.

She’s the goalkeeper for Zimbabwe’s women’s team, manages the men’s side, and is a significant figure in AFCNSW.

Petronila Ada was a key figure in helping to create a women’s tournament at African Cup NSW.(Supplied: African Cup NSW)

She’s a long-time member of the community, and has worked tirelessly alongside the committee to ensure a fair go is given to each player, regardless of their background.

Ada, and three other women who manage some of the men’s teams, made the push to create room for women’s sport in the local African community.

A footballer kicks the ball, she's standing on one leg, with the other raised high in the air.
Women from all cultural backgrounds are encouraged to participate, to create a welcoming atmosphere.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

After a long period of negotiation, Bernard Muchemwa, AFCNSW President, agreed to creating a woman’s tournament.

“People assumed that there wouldn’t be teams. But we all saw in last year’s — exhibition women’s — final between Congo and Zimbabwe that there’s a lot of talent in our female football community.

A woman with her back to camera, kicks a football and a defender stands in front of her, watching on.
Six African countries were represented in the inaugural women’s tournament played in western Sydney.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

“Football is a dearly loved game. We have over 20 nations represented in our tournament every year.

“We’re breaking barriers by fostering a thrilling environment to make friends, learn a skill or two and, if you’re lucky, represent your country on Western Sydney Wanderers amazing grounds,” she added.

Bringing African communities together through sport

Sierra Leonean Semisatu Johnson captained her country to victory in the women’s grand final and is grateful to have the chance to play.

Two women stand back to back, arms crossed, smiling at the camera.
Semisatu Johnson (right) is urging more women to take up football and participate in African Cup NSW.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

“I am just happy that the organisation created this tournament for us,” she said.

“All my life I’ve loved soccer. Even if I’m sad, if I am on that pitch, I’m very happy to have been given [the opportunity] to play. It makes everything worthwhile.”

“African Cup brings us together as a community,” Ghana player Marfo added.

“I guess watching the men play for so many years and finally being able to get out on the field to show our talent is good.”

Two women are playing football, they have their arms on each other as they both attempt to get to the ball.
Sierra Leone captain Semisatu Johnson (left) and Ghana’s Vida Opoku Agyemang have embraced the chance to represent their culture through football.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

Fellow Ghanaian Vida Opoku Agyemang agreed.

“Women’s soccer has gained much attention but to see people in my community, especially men, come down to support us whilst we play, a full stand with cheers, it is an amazing feeling,” she said.

A profile of a woman's face, she is smiling.
Ghana’s Vida Opoku Agyemang says it’s an amazing feeling to be able to participate in the tournament.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

“We have pretty good female players in the African community, having the skills and the talent just brings the community together.”

Creating a legacy for future generations

Like so many women in sport, these players have faced their own challenges, including limited resources and funding, lack of coverage and stigma around their games being “boring” to watch. 

But they’re hoping to change that by encouraging more women to join them.

A woman is sitting and smiling to someone off camera.
The introduction of a women’s tournament at the African Cup NSW has meant a lot to players from all backgrounds. (ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

“You know, as a woman playing soccer, it is a challenge for all of us. Even though we do not have as much support as we should, but we love the game, and hope for a change, that’s why we are pushing ourselves to do it,” Johnson said.

Ada hopes the progress made so far continues.

“In terms of the female community, I think it’s important that we remember to create more equity-based opportunities. We could be inspiring the next Matildas player,” she said.

A group of footballers celebrate after scoring a goal. Two women high five, while four other women come in to join in.
Sierra Leone won the first official edition of the women’s tournament, played in western Sydney through December, 2021.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Isha Jalloh)

“Throughout the tournament, we witnessed these women dominate and occupy space.

“They demanded respect and it was given with the zeal and commitment shown.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Amienata Kamara is a journalist and social worker, currently studying a Master of Humanitarian Assistance. She’s a journalist for African Cup NSW and team manager for Ivory Coast.

Isha Jalloh is a Sierra Leone-born photographer, disability support worker, university student, and head of media for African Cup NSW.

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