During her 15 games with South Melbourne Women’s NPL team, professional footballer Lisa De Vanna scored 17 goals, and none were more dramatic than those the Matildas star produced in the season’s final match.

With the team needing a win to finish at the top of the table, the 32-year-old’s stunning volley helped South to a 2-0 win that delivered the Victorian Women’s NPL Premiership title to the club in their debut campaign.

After years of striving for recognition, women’s football has been making giant strides off and on the field and the Matildas and South Melbourne star has been at centre of the sport’s rise in Australia.

South Melbourne recognised the importance of women’s football as a key aspect of their A-League aspirations when, in April this year, De Vanna signed to play in the club’s inaugural NPL season.

On Saturday night, following on from last month’s wins over the US, Brazil, and Japan, the Matildas play Brazil, in front of a sellout crowd of 17,000 fans in Penrith, western Sydney.

This comes in the same week that Football Federation Australia announced a landmark collective bargaining agreement that will see the average wage of W-League players rise from $6,909 to $15,500 for the 2017/18 season.

With Australia bidding for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it’s another sign of the advances that women’s football keeps making. Like the rest of the country, Victoria is currently experiencing a massive boom in female football participation which has grown 18.6 per cent since 2014, and for the first time more girls are playing football than netball.

De Vanna, a 120-game veteran for Australia and regularly considered one of the greatest female footballers in the world, was alongside Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou and South’s A-League bid chairman Bill Papastergiadis when the club announced its plan to enter a team in the W-League.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos about her decision to sign with South, De Vanna says that club director Gabrielle Guiliano was a big reason she put pen to paper.

“When I walked into the rooms and saw all the South Melbourne history, it just reminded me of being a kid and that’s what triggered me to want to sign there,” revealed the 32-year-old.

“I’m at the age now where I just wanted to be home. I was a little done going overseas. I wanted to really focus on the Matildas. As I live in Melbourne, and by luck I had a message from the coach of South’s Women’s NPL team Socrates Nicolaidis, who asked me what my plans were. I then found out about South’s A-League and W-League ambitions and when I talked to Gabrielle it just felt right signing for South.
“It’s a family club. They’ve got a history. It’s like being back in Perth and playing as a kid. I really enjoyed that multicultural aspect and that’s what tipped me over. It’s a club that respects what I bring to the team and that was really important to me, the loyalty and respect is there.”

This weekend South play Calder for a spot in the NPL Victorian grand final and De Vanna is hoping the club can do the double.

“It’s nice to win the minor premier plate but the job’s still not done,” she says. “I want to win the Grand Final, and get that major victory. It’s great for the club and it’s great for the girls. It shows consistency, it shows that you were the best team throughout the season, but we’ve still got two games left to win the big trophy.”

South Melbourne’s A-League bid chairman Bill Papastergiadis says that having someone of De Vanna’s pedigree onboard is a sign of how serious the club is about women’s football.

“We are a complete club,” he says.

“When I use those words I mean men’s, women’s and juniors – they all play an equal role in the club. This season our women’s group has achieved a spectacular result in such a short period of time. In their first year they have won the title. That can’t be underestimated and Lisa De Vanna has been a big part of that as has the football director responsible for women’s football, Gabrielle Giuliano who also works tirelessly to bring together the best team possible, to raise the profile of the club, and to attract the best players.
“It’s another reason South Melbourne needs to be in the W-League as well as the A-League. We’ve proven ourselves that we will be able to match the W-League clubs. Give us a chance and we’re there.”

De Vanna will be in Sydney on national team duty when South play on Saturday but will be back if they make the 1 October grand final. In the meantime, the Matildas star is buzzing at the prospect of playing in front of 17,000 locals when Australia faces Brazil on Saturday night.

“I’ve been in the team for a very, very long time and I’ve been playing all over the world and I’ve never played in front of a massive crowd of cheering Australians before, so that is very exciting,” she says.

Last month’s Tournament of Nations trophy win saw the Matilda’s beat the US for the first time in their history and De Vanna puts the team’s recent success down to the coaching staff.

“The professionalism and the standards we now have in the team environment leads to success with the football side of things,” she says.

“So now we can go out and play to our best potential. The coaches know our strengths and weakness as players and they also know the best way that we can be most effective as a team.
“Football-wise we’re one of the best in the world, not amany can compete with us on the field but our challenge has always been the mental side. If we can believe in ourselves and believe in the team and our philosophy I think we can beat the top three nations in the next year or so on a consistent basis.”

De Vanna’s time at South has seen her working to develop junior female football players at St Catherine’s School in Melbourne and she says her new coaching role has been enjoyable.

“They threw me into every opportunity, preparing me for life after football,” she says.

“I’ve been going to schools and doing a bit of coaching there. I’ve been mentoring young kids. It’s a different role, it’s a bit challenging because all I do is play football. But now I’m able to go there and educate them as a player. It’s been great.”

After De Vanna’s stint with South ends she will be playing in the upcoming W-League season. Her time in the lower tiers has given her some insight into how the women’s game can advance.

“To be honest, the NPL needs to be not only more competitive, but more structured,” she says.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s getting better and they’re starting to build, but a little bit more changes need to happen. It needs to be more of a pathway for young kids to come through so they can be better prepared when they enter the national team setup or the W-League. But that will come in time because it’s still fresh.”