The global perception for many is that Australia’s national symbol – the kangaroo – is almost a part of daily life there. The reality is quite different Down Under, but reinforcing the stereotype is the remarkable back-story of Lydia Williams, Australia’s goalkeeper at this FIFA Women's World Cup™.
The Matildas tackle reigning champions Japan in Edmonton in the quarter-finals on Saturday. It is unlikely, however, that any players in the match, and perhaps in the entire tournament, have enjoyed such a colourful journey to get to this elite stage. With an Aboriginal father and American mother, Williams grew up in the remote frontier town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, where wide-open spaces, red-earth terrain and countless indigenous fauna provided the backdrop.
Williams’ father was a tribal elder and the family would spend long periods driving around Western Australia’s vast expanses, offering assistance and advice to remote indigenous communities. It was undoubtedly an enriching childhood where a spiritual connection with the land and a relaxed lifestyle prevailed. Now as an adult, Williams, perhaps partly due to that upbringing, is unfailingly positive and boasts a permanent sunny disposition. Perhaps owning a pet kangaroo and wallaby as child also helped!
“In Kalgoorlie, we had kangaroos, dogs, chooks, doves, anything… It was wild at our place,” Williams told FIFA.com. “I have always liked animals, and always had animals growing up.
“We would travel around the desert - and kangaroos are all over Australia wherever there is wide-open spaces - and inevitably they would sometimes get hit by cars. We once found a joey (baby kangaroo) inside a pouch of a kangaroo that had been hit - we nursed it and had a pillow case for it to sleep in and hang on the door handle, which emulates the mother’s pouch.”
Williams’ passion for animals continued in her adulthood and she earned a zookeeping degree in Canberra, where the family moved when Lydia was aged 13. “I’m glad I have that to fall back on to. There are many zoos in the world but only one World Cup every four years.
Australia have defied the expectations of many by progressing from the ‘group of death’ ahead of Sweden and Nigeria, before eliminating Brazil in the Round of 16. Now they take on Japan with a ticket to the semi-finals on offer. Japan and Australia have long shared a rich history in both men’s and women’s football, a rivalry accentuated since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006. The nations met twice in last year’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup, with Japan edging a tense 1-0 win in the final following a 2-2 draw in the group stage.
“They know us really well, we know them really well,” Williams said. “I think it will be a really entertaining game. They are incredible players, we have a lot of respect for them as players and as a country, and I think that respect is mutual. It is also a win for Asian football, regardless of what happens.”
The Japan match-up means Australia will have faced a quartet of nations that have played in the past three Women’s World Cup Finals. Surviving such a run says much about the Matildas’ inner strength.
“We have a lot of self-belief and confidence,” said Williams. “We give it our all in games, and believe we can win it. We are performing like we really want it. This tournament and the upcoming Olympic campaign has ignited a hunger within the group which I can’t really explain.”
Making an old man cry
For Williams the tournament has also been a personal triumph. She overcame a second torn knee ligament suffered last July and returned inside standard recovery time to take the field at Canada 2015. Blessed with an unusually long reach, cat-like reflexes and a rare leap, Williams has proven her undoubted quality over the past fortnight in Canada.
“I haven’t had time to think about anything,” Williams responded when asked about her injury recovery and Canada experience. “I don’t think I will have the opportunity to take in all this until after the World Cup. To come back from injury and be performing the way I am has been amazing.”
Williams has one special fan who will be tuning in to watch a little more intently than most. Williams’ Arkansas-based 93-year-old grandfather Roy once even posted online: “My prayer is that I live to see Lydia as No1 goalkeeper for the Matildas in the World Cup and the Olympics.”
It’s fair to say Roy and the Williams clan celebrated more than most after the Matildas defeated Brazil – the first victory by a male or female Australian team in the knockout stage of a World Cup.
“The day we beat Brazil it was father’s day in the US,” Williams said, smiling broadly at the thought. “My mum rang him and he was crying saying, ‘What a great Grandfather’s Day present’.” Now the challenge is to deliver more football joy, starting with the quarter-final against Japan.