Leadership can often be a millstone around the neck, or conversely, a source of enormous inspiration. Lisa De Vanna, it seems, fits very much into the latter category.
By her own admission, De Vanna has faced many on and off-field challenges throughout her career, making her an unobvious choice when Australia coach Alen Stajcic announced her as his new skipper – along with co-captain Clare Polkinghorne - ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™. Yet De Vanna has blossomed in the role, developing maturity on the field, and becoming a “better person” off it.
The Perth-born forward burst onto the international stage 12 years ago, memorably scoring a remarkable solo goal a few months later that secured an unlikely win for the Matildas against then world champions Germany. In many ways those early flashes of untamed brilliance set a template for what was to come from Australia’s pocket-dynamo. Expect the unexpected.
It is hard to imagine any player in women’s football with more x-factor than De Vanna. In full flight De Vanna can seem like football’s answer to a whirling dervish. Twisting and spinning with the ball at her feet, De Vanna’s style can be unconventional at best. Add a jet-heeled burst of speed into the mix, and it is little wonder some of world football’s best defenders have often struggled to keep a tight rein.
De Vanna also boasts a rare eye for goal which often, almost inevitably, results in the unpredictable. An outrageous bicycle kick goal made the 2013 FIFA Puskás Award shortlist. Once again, De Vanna’s genius was proved in a single moment. Now 31, De Vanna, who has lost little of her trademark sharp turn of pace, is in a new stage of her career. Thanks in part to the tutelage of Stajcic, De Vanna now seems a slightly more conventional team player on the field, not to mention an inspiration off it.
Race for Rio
Now the challenge is to channel her new found qualities into helping Australia qualify for the 2016 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio. But it is a test that is significant to say the least. Women’s World Cup runners-up Japan headline a field that also includes teams who reached the knockout stage at Canada 2015 – China PR, Korea Republic and Australia - plus perennial powerhouse Korea DPR, and also Vietnam. Just two tickets to Rio are on offer for the tournament which kicks off on Monday.
“Being appointed captain made me get out of my comfort zone,” De Vanna told FIFA.com. “I like to think I have some good qualities that I can bring to this team as a leader.
“I was very grateful that I had a coach in Staj who had faith, belief and trust in me to go out and lead. He saw something in me that perhaps a lot of people didn’t. He has given me the confidence to lead and perform the way I do.
“Clare (Polkinghorne) has been my rock, and helped me to lead off the field as well and has helped teach me learn accountability, and she has helped me out so much.
"To have support like I do, makes me confident as a leader. The role is challenging and he (Stajcic) always helps bring out the best in me. And Clare has helped me think more about my actions. Off the field I constantly think about how what I do, might affect the team or my team-mates.”
Have boots, will travel
Football is De Vanna’s unabashed passion. She usually spends each year across two different countries plying her trade. At last count De Vanna has tallied 15 clubs in various national competitions. “That drive and passion I have always had since being a young person,” De Vanna said. “When I play I do so with so much passion and love for my country. And that, to me, is what makes me the player I am.
“I’m always trying to learn to be a better person, and captain, to help the team. I have been in difficult situations and faced challenges (in the past). To step up and accept this challenge is something I never thought I could do.”
De Vanna has featured in three World Cups, scoring in each of them, putting her name alongside the only other Australian to do so – Socceroos icon Tim Cahill. It is a statistic that provides further evidence of De Vanna’s status among the greats of the game Down Under. However, there is something of an anomaly on De Vanna’s resume: the Olympic Games.
De Vanna did in fact appear at the 2004 Olympiad where, almost inevitably given her penchant for the big stage, she got on the scoresheet. But that was 12 years ago when De Vanna was a wide-eyed 19-year-old, partly unappreciative of the enormity of the event.
Now she is desperate to return to that rarefied atmosphere. “I’m hungry and looking forward to it, but at the same time it is scary,” De Vanna says of the upcoming qualifiers. “I have missed out on two Olympics and I know that feeling. It is a slow four-year wound to heal.
“The preparation and mentality of the girls is a lot different to what we have had in the past ten years. We have a winning mentality, and if we play well and have some luck, we will get through.
“It is one of the toughest tournaments that any one of us will ever go through. If we have success, it can change women’s football in Australia completely."