25 years ago, Melissa Barbieri made her first appearance in our national domestic competition. Still starring for Melbourne City, she has now gone past Scott McDonald, Kevin Muscat, Liam Reddy and Lisa De Vanna, who round out the top five longest Australian national league careers.
Ageing like a fine wine.
That is certainly the case for evergreen Melbourne City goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri.
Barbieri made her debut as a 16-year-old for ITC Victoria in February 1997.
The Matildas legend has showed no signs of slowing down and has no plans to take her foot off the pedal as she celebrates 25 years in professional football.
“To be fair, so many milestones have happened in terms I can’t believe this is happening right now,” the 86-time Australia international said in an interview published by Melbourne City to mark the anniversary. “I think this is a culmination of those small moments coming together.
“I don’t think I would’ve said to you I would’ve been playing at my age. I certainly think I would be playing – but not professionally.
I do think I’ll play forever, much to the angst of my husband and family members, they want to keep me safe sometimes. I do some pretty precarious things at times.
“I’ve always just taken each year as it comes, you build on it and build on it, and suddenly you look back and it’s 25.”
Barbieri’s pro bow came in a Women’s National Soccer League fixture between ITC Victoria and the ACT Academy of Sport 25 years ago.
A lot has changed since then, both personally and professionally, but Barbieri continues to operate at an elite level in the Liberty A-League, juggling life as a mother and a footballer.
“I was just playing football, having fun,” Barbieri said. “Didn’t know the magnitude of it. I’d made the Australia squad the year before.
“I was kind of big headed at the time. Just thought I was it and a bit. Soon I found out it was difficult with the older players and how good the older players were.”
Barbieri’s first footsteps in football came in playing in an all-boys team – as a midfielder, not a goalkeeper!
Her journey through football has not been without obstacles but she has overcome those hurdles – featuring at four Women’s World Cups while helping Australia to Asian Cup glory in 2010.
“I fell in love with football. I love so many things that weren’t stereotypically female – I like motorbikes, playing in the dirt, picking up snails doing those sorts of things. I just thought football would be another thing I wasn’t allowed to do or be seen to do,” said Barbieri.
“I could play at school because no one told you off at school. The more you played, the better. When I was 14 and I needed a new sport to try to fill the gaps, it’s when my mum told me football is actually something you can play and she’ll find me a club. It was another pinnacle moment where I thought, hold on I’m actually angry now because I’ve missed out on all these years playing the game I absolutely adore.
“When I was 14, I actually thought I could make a go at this. Making state teams was also so important to me because I wanted to represent my state with vigour and pride.
I didn’t know you could play for Australia or go to the Olympics until I was 20. Those small moments growing up were huge for me.
Barbieri, who have birth to her first child in 2013, has been a standout performer in the A-League Women, defying her age to be a driving force behind City’s quest for another championship.
So, what is the secret to her longevity?
“I have a huge pain threshold,” she joked. “That’s one key factor. I think I can play through a lot of things that normally other players can’t. I just look after myself.
“People thought I retired in 2016 but I was injured. I had a really significant knee injury. What it took to come back from that was a lot of hard work, resilience. But you had to do it all on your own because you’re a female footballer. I had no club backing me, no one telling me what to do, no guidance. I had a lot of people helping but really not that money backing.
“I really look after myself day in, day out because even I learnt it later in my career, but your body is your tool and what you do daily can help you in the long run.”