Life lessons as a Matilda

“You've got to have nerves of steel to stand up there in front of a crowd of 50,000 and put that ball in the back of the net.”

Despite playing 28 times for the Matilda’s between 2004 and 2010, Selin Kuralay didn’t think she’d be attending the crunch FIFA World Cup quarter final play-off with France in Brisbane.

 

But then she got a phone call from fellow retired Matilda, and “big sister”, Tal Karp. Karp, who is the CEO of the YMCA, was hosting a conference on the Saturday morning of the game and joked the only way she would make it is if someone flew her in a private jet.

 

“They turned around and said, ‘we’ll sort it out - gather your team-mates’. So, we ended up getting a chartered flight,” Kuralay recalls. “It was crazy. Otherwise, we wouldn't have made it.”

 

To say Kuralay has seen the public’s understanding and love of the Matildas change over her life is an understatement. And, despite the national team’s exit from the tournament at the hands of England last week, she says they have shown millions of Australians and a generation of girls what is possible.

 

“The Matilda’s are really changing the way people perceive women's football,” Kuralay says. “These amazing female athletes are inspiring all different generations of people – males and females. And I think that's really special.”

 

Kuralay – who now leads a team as Deposits & Home Loans Portfolio Manager for ANZ Plus – is one of the humble ground breakers of Aussie sports.

 

 

In the 1990s she was the only girl playing soccer in the boy’s league in Victoria. By 18, she was playing at an Olympics as a Matilda. This involved training at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) among other sporting luminaries.

 

“In an era when icons like Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim and Andrew Bogut called the AIS home, we pursued an unorthodox approach - locking horns with the AIS boys' teams,” she says.

 

“It was really hard because we could just never understand why we'd come home and play in front of no one, but we'd be anywhere else in the world and play in front of packed stadiums. No one even knew who the Matildas were. I don’t think most people even cared that I played for the Matildas or represented Australia.”
 

It was like a double identity. After toiling for so long without recognition, Kuralay admits she is taken aback at the attention.

 

“I don’t think anyone, myself included, could have foreseen the profound impact that the World Cup would have. To think that the semi-final against England became the most watched television show in Australian history is a testament to the unanticipated reach and resonance of the Matildas.”

 

She believes the journey has just begun and knows what is needed from here.

 

What makes a young girl into a Matilda?

 

For Kuralay it started with the determination of a five-year-old girl who did not have a league to play in.

 

“I played in the boys’ team because there weren’t any girls teams at the time. I played with the boys until I was 14 years old.”

 

She got her first taste of playing for the national team at the age of 15, playing for the young Matildas.

 

But the lessons that defined Kuralay were the toughest ones. At 17 she needed a knee reconstruction after an anterior cruciate ligament injury – one year out from the 2004 Olympics.

 

“It was an 11-month recovery and at 18 I ended up being one of the youngest in the team going into the Athens Olympics.”

 

It wasn’t a difficult choice for Kuralay to decide to play at Florida State University when she was offered a full scholarship to study and play football in America.

 

On her graduation from college in the US, she ‘couldn't afford to be a Matilda’ so she had to get a job, which is when she found her career at ANZ. She juggled the career while playing for the Melbourne Victory Womens team.

 

It was only after a third knee reconstruction she decided to give the game away in 2016. Although she came back for one game with the Victory - and scored a goal.

 

“I just wasn’t enjoying it, it was exhausting training and working. It just wasn’t possible.”

 

 

What being a Matilda teaches you

 

When Kuralay finds her job stressful now, she turns her mind back to playing at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium in 2004. Every time she touched the ball 85,000 fanatical Mexican fans would shout abuse in unison, willing her to fail. She smiles recalling playing a good game and winning.

 

“The pressure that you had in those situations … it's like you’ve got this incredible focus and you've been conditioned to do this stuff from a very young age. I was effectively high-performance training from the age of 12.”

 

She also understands how moments of triumph on the field can be mixed with moments of bitter disappointment. One of her most memorable games was against Brazil at the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship held in Canada in 2002.

 

With minutes to go, the Matildas were losing 2-1 in front of a stadium filled with 40,000 spectators. Kuralay found herself in front of the goals with the ball at her feet when she was awarded a penalty.

 

My parents were in the stadium and I could never forget looking over at Mum and Dad. And Mum had turned her back as she just couldn’t watch.”

 

She sank the goal and the Matildas pushed the game into extra time, but Brazil would score one more goal to seal the match.

 

“I think sport really helps you build so many different characteristics and strengths, like resilience,” she says. “You perform in stress situations, and we saw that in the penalty shoot-out (against France). You’ve got to have nerves of steel to stand up there in front of a crowd of 50,000 and put that ball in the back of the net.”

 

While the pressures of working at ANZ are different, Kuralay says the skills learned in top-level football now serve her well.

 

“I love working in teams and collaborating with people,” she says “It's about where the teams got to get to rather than me individually. You have this incredible time management and discipline.”

 

At the same time, Kuralay has not left sport behind. She serves on the Australian Olympic Committee Advisory Committee helping advise athletes traveling to Paris for the 2024 games.

 

She credits ANZ Customer Fairness Advisor – Commonwealth fencing champion and Olympian – Evelyn Halls as a mentor. Kuralay is also a director of Taekwondo Australia and now enjoys coaching her nephew’s team in Strathmore.

 

“They are a bunch of nine-year-olds and I love it. It's been special watching their journey as they improve so much,” she says. “I take them for private sessions to build up their skills. It's really quite special and unique.”

 

Even her team of nine-year-olds now know about her history as a Matilda.

 

“They gave me nothing their entire lives and now all of a sudden I’m really cool and they're super proud.”

 

What now for the womens game?

 

Kuralay says the biggest test of the tournament is whether initiatives like the FIFA Women’s World Cup legacy programme – aimed at boosting grassroots participation in the women’s game – are effective in the long run.

 

“Are we going to be getting an increased amount of participation as a result of this World Cup? We need to make sure it isn’t just a sugar hit.”

 

The benefits are obvious. The Office of the Women in Sport estimates that for every dollar invested into women's sport, the return is about $7.30.

 

"Leveraging women's sports through what is currently a modest investment offers a significant opportunity, tapping into a growing market while promoting diversity, inclusiveness and empowering narratives."

 

Jeff Whalley is a Senior Journalist with ANZ

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