There’s a moment when many kids realise they aren’t going to be professional sportspeople, or that they just aren’t very good. The ball doesn’t come their way very often, unless the coach intervenes and suggests the other kids share it around a bit more. At least, that’s how I worked out I wasn’t very good at netball and basketball.

It wasn’t like that for footy, though. At my tiny primary school, where we didn’t even have enough boys to make up a team, they didn’t want me because I was a girl. Maybe it was also because I was a girl with not a lot of skills, as the aforementioned netball experience shows, but being a girl was just another strike against my name. And I didn’t push my way onto the team to show them I could do it, too. I was too scared of being the only one, of being bullied, of being out of place.

There were other reasons not try as well. I can pinpoint the moment I became a feminist (even if I didn’t know the word yet) to the day my teacher told me Bombers legend Matthew Lloyd couldn’t be my role model, because I couldn’t grow up to be like him.

***

So I gave up on playing, but I never gave up on footy. It makes me too happy for that. I went along to matches every weekend, with my nanny, my dad, my cousins. Despite rivalries going back longer than my lifetime, it unites Melbourne in a way not much else does, regardless of race, social standing or income. Aussie rules footy is exhilarating. It makes your heart race, until you feel you could explode with the mix of elation and frustration.

There’s a different joy watching the AFL Women’s league’s opening round unfold. It’s like the days leading up to Christmas, but when you still believed in Santa. I’m on the verge of tears just hearing advertisements for the ABC’s call of the matches. There are women in team colours, and a fixture, and a premiership cup. Every detail seems too much. And the siren hasn’t even sounded yet.

***

The thing is, I’m not just a spectator anymore. Last year I took to the field for the first time, wearing proper footy boots and long stripey socks and a guernsey with a number on it.

I had googled women’s football teams in the past, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually turn up at a training session. Last year was the year I got over it. It only took the knowledge that my friends would be there and a few panic attacks, but I got there. I ran. I kicked. I got bruises as I learnt to handball properly. Like the women in the proper AFL, my team will play in its first league this year. This week we got assigned out numbers, and learned the words to our club’s song.

***

The women who take the field this week are pioneers. Susan Alberti, former vice president of the Western Bulldogs, who has personally put her own finances into making this happen, blazed a trail for us in the boardroom.

 Penny Cula-Reid, one of three players who took the AFL to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for the right to play footy at the age of 14 in 2003, and was drafted to Collingwood last year, knocked down barriers in the courtroom.

Every player, whose story involves the job she does alongside her training schedule, or the sport she moved to when she got told they couldn’t play footy, shows how hard they all worked to get here.

***

Every AFLW player is clearing the way for thousands of women and girls to follow in their footsteps — and we are hot on their heels. Women’s participation in Aussie rules at a grassroots level is exploding, with 380,041 women and girls registered to community clubs last year. It’s not a coincidence; people are acting on what they see. This is where the joy is also tinged with sadness. In a conversation with an older woman this week, she said “shame I was born 30 years too early. I would have been all over it.” The floodgates are open, but some will still miss out.

***

I’m not a pioneer. I was scared. I waited for others to do the hard work, to be first, for someone to drag me along to training. This isn’t a story of what might have been if things had been more equal — even if the women’s league had existed as long as the men’s, there’s no way I would be playing in it.

But so many other women have missed out before me, who would have got a game. Susan Alberti is just one. Now the little girls who turn up to Auskick won’t miss out. If they are good enough they have just as much chance of playing at the highest level in the country as the boys they play beside. My 11-year-old cousin who is tough and fast and winning awards at her local club could get drafted one day. There are no limits on her dreams because of her gender. Girls who want to play footy won’t face being the only one in their Auskick group, surrounded by 20 boys — they can focus on tackling rather than smashing glass ceilings.

And this is only the beginning. There are just eight teams in the first women’s league. One day there will be 18, just like the men’s league, and the women will get paid so well they don’t have to work second jobs. Maybe the Melbourne media will even forgive them for their misdemeanours in the same way we forgive the male players.

So if you see a few tears as Collingwood take on Carlton at Princes Park, you’ll forgive us. It feels like we have waited forever for this day to come.

Now little girls can tell their teachers their role models are Daisy Pearce, and Katie Brennan and Moana Hope. And they can grow up to be just like them.

Peter Fray

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