Full backstory of Aussie football pioneer still making history after being told to stop playing 23 years ago

Former Matildas captain Melissa Barbieri has made a habit of being a pioneer through 26-year career, writes Tom Smithies.

It’s important to note that Melissa Barbieri has an asterisk next to her 100.

Like a batter who’s reached a century and is still in, Barbieri now stands at 100 appearances in the A-League Women – and counting. With at least one more game to come this season, and the strong chance of finals beyond that, there’s every chance that number of appearances will be higher by the end of City’s campaign.

Reaching 100 ALW games was a target for Barbieri coming into her 26th season as a professional footballer, a figure all the more remarkable given that she also played in only the second ever game of what was then the brand new W-League in 2008.

That longevity comfortably makes Barbieri the longest-serving national league player in Australian history – almost four years more than Scott McDonald in second place – but then she has made quite a speciality of pioneering moments.

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 W-League.

A left-winger and midfielder picked first for her state and then converted to being a goalkeeper at 20 when a surgeon told her to stop playing due to a back injury. A year later she was in the Matildas squad… in goal.

That goalkeeper, who went on to play at four World Cups and an Olympics, became the first Australian captain to lift silverware after the Matildas and Socceroos moved into Asia. As she said herself soon after the Matildas won that Asian Cup in 2010, that was a moment “stamped in history”.

Retiring from international football after 86 caps, she still holds the record for most clean sheets. Clearly needing another challenge to meet, she became the first Victorian woman to hold the AFC A Licence for coaching, is an assistant coach as well as player at Melbourne City and earlier this year became technical director of Southern United FC in Victoria’s NPL.

The backdrop to many of those achievements was her determination a decade ago to return to playing after giving birth to her first child. Clubs and coaches told her it couldn’t happen. She ended up selling some of her career memorabilia to fund it, but that career did restart, and how.

Barbieri holds the Asian Cup at Sydney Airport in 2010.

Sunday’s defeat to Perth means City have to defeat Canberra this weekend to be sure of making the finals – though a draw or defeat may be enough pending other results – but Barbieri will ensure that nothing is left to chance.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the young players I see coming through the ranks, [but] I’ve been fighting to play this game for longer than most of them have been alive – so I’m here to show the next generation that if they want it, they have to fight for it too,” Barbieri declared. That was in February last year, and she’s still showing no sign of stepping aside.