She Is the Navy Blue

Words by: Caitlin Cefai  
Art by: Madison Marshall 

The sweat. The rush. The crowd. The bounce. The game. It’s full throttle: no protective gear, played in the dead of winter, and known for being a petri dish for vulgarity and violence in its crowd. Aussie Rules is the sport for Australians. It’s as tough as its namesake nation — the soul of a home with over 60,000 years of history. It’s a game for all Australians… 

Well, up until only six years ago, it was actually a game just for men.

Despite being in the 125th year of the league, the AFL has historically been an all-men’s game, with testosterone fuelling the national sport at its most-watched level. That all changed in 2017 when a group of women with determination and a yearning for justice played their hearts out in the very first season of a women’s professional league: the AFLW. Since then, the league has transformed from just eight teams to eighteen, and with five seasons under its belt, it’s only natural that its sixth is shaping up to be the best yet. 

Tickets to the inaugural 2022 match for the Bombers v Hawks at ETU Stadium sold out in 24 hours. Pressure was put on the AFL to move the game to the larger Marvel Stadium — and it worked, resulting in a total attendance of 12,092 fans to watch Essendon defeat Hawthorn. 

With a feat like this in round one, it’s only a matter of time before attendance records are broken, and the quality of game telecasting is improved to close the gap with the AFL. With a lineup of talented women as well as two publicly non-binary players, the league is giving a chance to those who have long been excluded from Aussie Rules footy. 

I chatted with Amelia Velardo, #1 at Carlton, following a recent move from Collingwood.

What first got you interested in football?

I grew up playing basketball; football was never really an option to find a career back then. Towards the end of my basketball career, I just lost love for the game, and football was becoming more prevalent in the [sports] environment. With the AFLW and more competitions in school, I decided to give it a go. 

I’ve grown up as a really big football supporter. I would always have a kick in the backyard with Dad on the weekend. I just thought ‘why not?’, gave it a go, and haven’t looked back since. 

Have you always been interested in being an athlete, or do you have goals outside of football?

I’m currently studying a double degree in Law and Media at La Trobe Uni, but I’ve always wanted to be an athlete. Originally a professional basketballer, I had the common dream to play here, go to college in America, and maybe make it into the big leagues. Now I obviously play footy and still have that athletic ambition, but being a female athlete in this climate [is] not sustainable as a full-time job at the moment unfortunately, so I keep open avenues on the side. 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Footy is proving to be something that has great prospects for me. We got a pay increase, and because we get to build and network through the club, it helps us to balance between studying and playing the sport. 

In five years, I hope I’m still playing footy on a list and have made some really positive strides in my career in both performance and position, and hopefully in some leadership as well.

How has the transition from the Magpies to the Blues been?

It’s been pretty full on — some people don’t realise that emotionally it can be challenging, even though it was my decision to make the move. 

I will always have a lot of love for Collingwood. I’m so grateful for the opportunities they gave me and the learnings I gained. I grew so much as a player and person from those experiences.

Making the move to Carlton was a really big thing for me, making new relationships. It’s tough going from a team you’re really comfortable with, from friends you’ve connected with over a couple of years, and then moving to a new environment. But the whole group at Carlton — both staff and players — have made it easier. It’s become my home quite quickly.

What does the women’s league represent to you?

It’s something that’s really special and probably something that we take for granted. I recently found an old photo of me in a baby Carlton jumper. It was a moment that kind of hit me; when I was growing up, football wasn’t an option for me because it simply didn’t exist. Now it’s my responsibility to help create visibility, so that little girls have something to look up to and know they have a pathway. 

There is also the consideration that while we talk about the younger generation and representation for them, I also see an obligation to the older women. They will talk about how amazing it is to see us play, and what they would give to have had that opportunity if only it was around for them back then. I was in hospital once from a footy injury (in my Collingwood gear at the time) and the nurse who was treating me said, “oh my God, do you play for Collingwood?!”. She just went on about how she knew women like herself who just would’ve given anything to be doing what we as female players are today. The impact it had on them, seeing us being able to achieve those things, is really special.

What is a message you would like to tell the little girls out there that look up to you?

Don’t lose the child-like love that you have — discover what you love about your passion and then fight to never lose that.

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