Success comes to many footballers without experiencing genuine hardship. For some though, reaching and staying at the top is achieved only after overcoming tremendous adversity. For Australia striker Sarah Walsh, who recently retired from international football, the latter is most definitely the case.
Indeed, Walsh has managed to conquer the kind of hurdles that would have been the downfall of many. Three knee reconstructions by the age of 18, and a recent 18-month absence following serious micro-fracture knee surgery, have book-ended Walsh’s eight-year international journey. It is a career which, but for ill-fortune, would have been enhanced even further beyond an impressive tally of 32 goals in 69 appearances.
At 29, Walsh has endured some 15 arthroscopes and suffers from significant arthritis in the knees. Yet Walsh’s fortitude, one which belies her diminutive 157cm frame, allowed the Sydneysider to feature prominently as the Matildas enjoyed a breakthrough period on the international stage.
Closing act on grand play
The pacy striker concluded her international career last month by scoring in her final outing against Olympic champions USA, before the Aussies fell to a 6-2 defeat in a match also notable as Pia Sundhage’s last in charge of the Stars and Stripes. Not that Walsh will be lost to the game just yet, and this weekend she will wear the captain’s armband as new W-League club Western Sydney Wanderers make their debut.
“I had mixed emotions [about the final game],” Walsh told FIFA.com. “I never thought I would score in my last match against the US. It felt fitting and it was nice. I remember thinking [at half-time] if we hang onto this ‘I can die happy’,” says Walsh with a smile. “Just to beat the US once, because we have never beaten them.”
Walsh, unhesitating, names the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ as a major highlight, with Australia reaching the last eight in dynamic fashion, having never won a match at three previous appearances on the world stage. “We had high expectations, but there is still that unknown feeling,” she says. “When we beat Ghana 4-1 in the first game, we realised we had something at that level.” Walsh famously celebrated scoring against the Africans with a dash of trademark humour by grabbing a loose boot and pretending to call home on a ‘shoe phone.’
“We went on and took it to Brazil in the quarter-finals. It was only then when we came home, that I didn’t need to explain to people who the Matildas were! We were pretty much non-existent in terms of recognition in the media and in the public. That was a real turning point,” she said. “We made the World Cup quarter-finals and yet I think of our preparation. At that time I was working in a sports store and on my feet for eight hours a day and training that day as well.”
Walsh now works full-time for Football Federation Australia co-ordinating a drug and alcohol guidance programme, and studies a Business degree part time. Her retirement sparked a host of glowing tributes led by Australia coach Tom Sermanni who described Walsh, “as an outstanding role model for the sport and an inspiration for our young, up-and-coming players.”
The Aussie attacker says she will leave an international scene that is in good health both Down Under, and globally. “That first half against the US typifies what we are potentially capable of in the future,” said Walsh. “If anything, we are stronger in attack than when we made the World Cup quarter-finals. For a long time, women’s football was about physical strength, or at least the ability to run. Nowadays, I think most teams have that as a base, and the football side is winning, looking at the likes of Japan.”
Walsh now struggles to walk down stairs now without a limp, having effectively, no cartilage left in her right knee. So it is unsurprising that she is happy with her decision to quit.
When detailing her injury record, Walsh, such is her matter-of-fact way of dealing with her many setbacks, omits to mention a broken leg suffered against Canada which ruled her out on the eve of the 2008 AFC Asian Cup. Injury too, halted her chances of an appearance at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, and also the 2010 Asian Cup final, when the Matildas became the first Australian team to win the continental crown.
“I think now of life after football and walking down stairs properly, and all those things I should be able to do at 29, which I can’t. I have the knees of an 80-year-old! I will probably have to do weights all my life just to maintain some sort of knee capacity. But I wouldn’t do anything differently.”