Still starring at 44! Why Australia’s oldest pro footballer has no plans to retire

Melissa Barbieri is proof that age is just a number. The evergreen Liberty A-League star speaks to about her history-making career and why she has no plans to slow down.

So, what’s the secret to Melissa Barbieri’s extraordinary longevity in football?

It was only last month that the Australian football pioneer, who is still playing for Melbourne City and saved a penalty on the weekend, celebrated her 44th birthday!

If that was not incredible enough, the 2023-24 Liberty A-League campaign is her 27th professional season.

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This is a former Matildas captain who is the longest-serving national league player in Australian history by quite some distance and has achieved almost everything in the game, including appearing at four FIFA Women’s World Cups.

Almost three decades later and the Melbourne City shot-stopper has no plans to slow down.

“We’ve come so far in the game that every time I step out for a new season, I just want to experience what these young kids get to experience and move on with for the rest of their careers,” Barbieri told ahead of Sunday’s match against Adelaide United.

“All the things we’re starting to see where my teammates are going and signing for overseas clubs in the middle of the season – I was crying when these things are happening.

“Then all of a sudden I’m thinking, hold on, these things happen in professional football everywhere. Just embrace the fact that this is now happening here and it’s happening to me and you kind of think well this is just another part of football I’ve never experienced before. Having that at 44 is really, really unbelievable.

“Like learning this new-age goalkeeping, all these different techniques coming out. I’m excited by all those new things. Every time I get to step out onto the pitch, I get to learn something new and that’s always extremely exciting.

“When I sign that new contract it’s because the club believes in me. I don’t turn up every year banging down their doors, I’m just saying to them do you want me for another year? Is it acceptable for me to play another year? I’m ready to go if you are but it’s always been the club’s decision to sign me and I always take it with a huge amount of honour.”

Barbieri is a name synonymous with football in Australia – from the Liberty A-League to the Matildas as she has overcome various hurdles throughout her storied career.

Don’t even mention the word retirement to her.

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“Everybody’s advice over the years has been you’re a long time retired. You can’t control injuries and a lot of things in your life but if you turn up everyday, you’re challenged and excited. One day I might turn up here and be like, that’s it,” said Barbieri, who also has a deep passion for commentating.

“I had to retire internationally from football because there wasn’t the maternal things I needed as a mum, so I had to retire when I did. But I have everything I need here. When you turn up and you’re excited to go. Everybody says you’ll know when you need to retire.

“If I feel like I can’t get a gig in the A-League, I’m still going to go down and play in the NPL. Then if I can’t get an NPL gig, I’ll drop down somewhere else.

“I’ll be a football player my whole life. Retiring is such a stupid thing to say because gym memberships cost a lot these days. I’d rather keep fit doing something I love than paying someone to lift gym equipment around.”

Whoever you ask or wherever you turn, a player or coach will tell you about Barbieri’s leadership and professionalism.

That has been evident in 2023-24.

Barbieri started the season as City’s number two goalkeeper behind Canadian Lysianne Proulx but she has been thrust back into the spotlight in Round 15 and Round 16.

The 86-time Australia international saved a Princess Ibini penalty in last week’s goalless draw with defending champions Sydney FC.

Whether she is playing or watching from the sidelines, it’s always the same for Barbieri.

“As a goalkeeper, anybody who knows goalkeeping, you train harder than when you play a match,” she said. “Every time I go to bed, I’m excited to wake up and get to training.

“There is disappointment when you don’t play but then you have to remember if I treated myself just because I’m not playing differently than those that do, how do I treat a young player who isn’t playing or how do I treat someone in the squad who doesn’t get a jersey ever?

“If I de-value myself, I’m de-valuing them. I’m always motivated to make sure mentally I feel valued and that comes down to how you perceive yourself. It’s easy because I’m challenged everyday but it’s also something you have to practice in terms of holding yourself in good esteem no matter how many minutes you’re playing.”

It’s all part of her approach and mindset regarding football, and why she is trying to pass it on to her teammates.

“Being a goalkeeper, you have to understand you can’t control the other end of the pitch. It might be different for a midfielder but for a goalkeeper, especially because we have one starting position in a team. You could go a whole season without playing a minute.

“You don’t want to turn up at the end of the season and have a trophy and feel like you’ve done nothing for it. That’s why I always get the girls to embrace the fact you have to do running when everyone stops playing and you haven’t played. You have to do those top-ups and extras.

“Why? Because when you lift the trophy at the end of the season you have to have the feeling that I actually committed to this, I did something to receive this trophy even though I may not have played many, if at all, any minutes.”

Barbieri has achieved all this, including an AFC Women’s Asian Cup title in 2010 and a pair of Liberty A-League Goalkeeper of the Year honours, while juggling life as a mother.

She became the first Australian captain to lift silverware after the Matildas and Socceroos moved into Asia.

But after giving birth to daughter Holly in 2013, Barbieri was told by clubs and coaches a return to football couldn’t happen. She never took no for an answer.

“I don’t want to prove people wrong as such, I want to prove to those following me that they can,” she said. “I don’t want to say you told me I couldn’t, so I am.

“Well that’s motivating and all, but I want to show the mums, the future mums that they can do it. Even though someone says that they thing they can’t, that you will be superhuman.

“Not every pregnancy goes to plan but if you’re feeling good and you want to come back from it all, that you can. You don’t have to hold off your career, that’s the one thing I want them to know. Yes, you take some time out but the rewards are there when you come back and show yourself how much more of an able athlete you because of what you’ve been through in pregnancy.

“Everyone thinks a hiatus is a step backwards but in actual fact, growing a human is probably the most miraculous thing that you’d be able to do and you turn into a superhuman.”

And what does Holly – now aged 11, think about her mother’s exploits?

“She couldn’t care less,” Barbieri said laughing. “I bring her to training and she’s like, oh my God I cant think of anything worse than coming to training.

“I told her, if you told any of your mates that you’re coming to City and you’re going to be part of the team and all these girls are going to be like your aunties, she’s like nah, no big deal.

“Because I wasn’t allowed to have her around the team when she was so young, she didn’t grow up like Harper (Katrina Gorry’s daughter) etc. Those little girls get aunties, where I wasn’t able to bring her on tour.

“That’s the only thing I really get upset about when I see little Harper and the fact she can speak to all the girls. I remember when Hayley Raso came to my house one time and Holly was speaking about Hayley for a good six months after that. That bond is the only regret I have really.”

This a trailblazer who was a basketballer and tennis player growing up because she was unaware women could play football.

A player who was told as a girl that she wasn’t allowed to play with boys became the first woman to play in the (men’s) Victorian State League in 2007, during the hiatus between the closure of the old Ansett Summer Series and the establishment of the A-League Women.

Based on all of that, Barbieri would never have envisioned the career she has had.

“When you think about four World Cups,” she said. “I watched Italy countless times on the TV, winning the 82 World Cup. My father relived that moment for 20 years.

“To think I’d be selected to go to one, let alone four. And to captain my country. There’s no way I foresaw that happen at all. I grew up playing basketball and tennis, I didn’t even know you could play football as a female.”