There can be few footballers that have made a more circuitous journey - or indeed bigger commitment - than that made by Australia goalkeeper Lydia Williams. The Aboriginal Australian, who grew up in one of her nation’s most remote regions, has travelled to Sweden’s far north to achieve the next step in her career. Her current home just outside the Arctic Circle is a world away in every sense from a carefree childhood spent on Western Australia’s red-soiled outback, owning pet kangaroos and, at times, living off the land.
Long regarded a leading light among Australia’s burgeoning crop of young talent, Williams, after six years in the national team squad, seemed set for a long spell as No1 when disaster struck. A long-awaited professional contract abruptly ended by a torn knee ligament in just her second outing for Sweden’s Pitea early last year.
However, Williams, not for the first time in her career, chose the tough option eschewing the comforts of home for a year’s rehabilitation in Sweden. Williams, whose training regime and work ethic led to former Australia and current USA coach Tom Sermanni describing the lanky shot-stopper as a “top-level role-model”, is hoping to reap rewards in the years to come.
Now 24, Williams has been to two FIFA Women’s World Cup™ but, having made just one appearance, has her sights set firmly on representing her country at Canada 2015 and beyond. Last Sunday a significant milestone on a long journey was reached, as Williams donned the gloves for the first time in a year as Pitea opened their Damallsvenskan campaign.
Long way to the top
Born to an Aboriginal father and American mother, Williams spent her formative years in Kalgoorlie, isolated from city life. Indeed her hometown is some 600 kilometres from the nearest major metropolitan area, Perth, which in itself is one of the world’s most remote cities.
“Dad, who was an Aboriginal tribal leader, ended up teaching religion in small isolated communities and settlements so I grew up travelling all over the desert,” Williams told FIFA.com. “Sometimes we were away for days at a time and I learnt how to literally live off the land, how to hunt and survive without much.”
“I remember finding injured kangaroos on the side of the road with babies inside the pouch and we would take them home and nurse them, and they became our pets. Those kinds of stories amaze my Swedish team-mates, although that is not really an Australian thing, more a Lydia Williams thing!”
Williams may not have realised it at the time, but growing up playing myriad sports in the broad outback landscape was to shape her adult life. “I played AFL (Australian Rules football) on the red dust in the desert, so I always knew how to kick and catch,” says Williams. “When I arrived in Canberra at 13, goalkeeper was the only position left, and it seemed a natural fit.”
Though a qualified zookeeper in her home-town of Canberra and a prominent member of the local football fraternity in Australia’s capital city, Williams elected to do her rehabilitation on the other side of the globe. “For me I needed to be around a team, otherwise I would struggle for motivation,” Williams said. “A team pushes you and you have that extra layer of support, I didn’t feel I could progress mentally with Canberra United’s season only three months long. Mentally it has taken a lot out of me, but physically I have improved a lot.”
Though she had a year as a reserve goalkeeper at Chicago Red Stars as a teenager, Williams “jumped” at the opportunity to play in Sweden. “Some of the other Aussie girls told me only good things about Sweden. Though when I arrived it was something like minus 24, and when I left Canberra it was 38,” says Williams with a smile in her voice.
“Pitea’s support has been amazing,” says Williams. “They have encouraged me every step of the way and haven’t stopped backing me. I have made some great friends here and been made very welcome.”
Australia repeated their breakthrough quarter-final appearance at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with another last-eight finish four years later. The Germany 2011 squad was one of the youngest at the tournament and with a new coach at the helm – Dutchwoman Hesterine de Reus – the Matildas are very much in a transition stage.
“We are have a lot of young players coming through which is great, though we still need some experience of course,” says Williams. “Hopefully in the coming years we can really be in medals contention.”
Along with fellow indigenous Australian Kyah Simon, Williams’ journey to Germany was the subject of a television documentary. Williams talks with fondness about Germany 2011, and a return to the world stage - along with becoming an Olympian - are two of her key goals. “The atmosphere in Germany was different, and I’m glad I had that experience,” says Williams. “It sparked a little fire in me and it is definitely something I want to experience again.”