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Hey guys,

I’m having a wonderful time in Sydney. I haven’t seen tons of the city yet as I’ve been engaged with the Football Writers’ Festival (more on this in a sec) which took place in the Rocks / Tar-ra, located on a wee peninsula next to the bridge, which was the first place colonisers landed in the late 18th century. It’s home to Australia’s first pub and the most ‘historic’ area of the country, if you wanna start the clock when white people got here.

By the water in the Rocks
Sydney’s Central Business District, where I am staying, is a less romantic place. It’s full of skyscrapers, places for office workers to eat lunch and not much else. The buildings are so tall that the light doesn’t really get in. On Wednesday, I'm moving in to my friend Fiona's place in Newtown which I have on good authority is a 'trendy' and 'sleazy' locale.

My experience at the Football Writers’ Festival was brilliant. I spent three days learning from people who know their shit discussing lots of hard-hitting isshooz like the game’s diversity issue, match-fixing and gambling, player wellbeing, and the impact of this winter’s tournament on the future of the sport in Australia. It was a thorough, in-depth look at the world of football, with no stone unturned, no dark corner unexamined. To be honest, excluding some optimism about the potential trajectory of young Australian attacking prodigy Mary Fowler, the conversations happening on stage were quite disheartening .
Some journalists forecasting a horrible future for football
Most memorable was the story of Canadian football player and whistleblower Ciara McCormack. In 2008, McCormack's Canada Under 20s coach Bob Birarda left his position in a ‘parting of ways’ that had been ‘mutually beneficial’, according to a statement by Canada Soccer, which failed to explain that he had been forced to leave after sexually abusing players. McCormack, who had been instrumental in exposing his predatory behaviour, stopped receiving national team call-ups. Months after losing his position with the U20s, Birarda showed up to coach teenagers in a Vancouver suburb.


When McCormack and her teammates complained, the governing body did nothing and Birarda remained a coach of young women until 2019, when a blog by McCormack prompted a criminal investigation which has since handed Birarda a two-year jail sentence. Earlier this year, McCormack gave a powerful statement to a House of Commons committee imploring the government to set up an inquiry into abuse in sport.

I could see that years of being silenced and gaslit by her national football association had deeply affected her and there she was, sitting on a stage and talking about it. Legendary.

The particular detail I found so harrowing about the tale was the way that the success of Birarda’s crime depended on his exploitation of those girls’ love of football. Why do abuse victims hesitate to speak out? For fear of the consequences. For Birarda’s players, their deep desire to play football at the highest possible level became an obstacle to making accusations which would put their national team progression at risk.
I'm having a chat with some of the other contributors to Hear us Roar and Sally Freedman
I had been invited to attend the festival to speak about an anthology of women’s football writers, ‘Hear us Roar’, which includes my piece ‘Three goals that changed me’. I’ve shared what is essentially a love letter to the game and all of the emotions it brings out in us as fans and players. It’s an enormous force, the world’s love of football. I was in the room because I had written about its endless potential for good. Hearing countless stories, like McCormack’s, which show how it is exploited, was initially overwhelming.

It didn’t feel good. This basket in which I carry all of my eggs is rotten at the core. Do I want to be so close to this game, with all of its dark secrets? Will I be able to forget all of this when I next sit down to watch a match?

The answer to the second question, at least, is probably no. But that’s the point of these conferences. You get lots of people who have the interest and capacity to change things in a room, and talk about the things which need to change. I’m not sure I’m going to be bringing down FIFA with 31/7 but I’ll maybe try and do my tiny bit.

I can hear you panicking. What about the gifs? The gossip??! Won’t someone think of the bitchy put-downs! Don’t worry, they’re safe, but if I’m going to be burdened with the grim truth then I will be bringing you down with me.

I was really struck by the number of guest speakers who didn’t seem to have a passionate love for football itself. When the chair asked one panel of journalists which team each person supported, more than one confessed to not following a particular team. Eh?
Then, on Sunday, I played in a Writers vs Fans match organised by the Australian Supporteroos. This was great fun. It lashed with rain, everyone was giving it some, and the spirit of the World Cup was well and truly in the air. But though all of the festival speakers were invited to participate, I was one of just two who turned up to represent the writers. Many of the other speakers chose the pub instead where, one assumes, they were putting their heads together on how they’ll uncover the next scandal.

I got the sense the top investigative journalists who are trying to change the minging football landscape are simply fascinated by FIFA. I can see why. One of the world’s most powerful and nefarious organisations born from humankind’s obsession with the experience of running around after a bag of air. It's mad.

The weekend made me question myself. There are people who need help and, as a person with a pen, shouldn’t I be doing something?

It’s not the first time I have asked myself this. I am very proud of my sisters, who both work in mental health. Every day they withstand the shittiness of the NHS to support patients to enjoy easier, healthier lives, while I spend my working hours dreaming up some contrived joke about Rachel Daly wearing socks on the beach (I haven't nailed it yet). I shared this concern with Lucy once and she said ‘don’t worry Flo, the things that you write are making people happy and there’s value in that’ 🤠

My time might come, but I don’t think I’m ready to change the world yet. However, if I can stop one person buying a MAE27 ‘be unapologetically yourself’ t-shirt then I have not lived in vain.

I have many more takeaways from my time at the festival which I will share with you over the coming weeks. It was particularly interesting learning about the status of football within Australia, and the parallels it bears with the progress of the women’s game in the UK. I’m going to write to you about this tomorrow.

For now, I’m off to have a little run around the harbour. I need to shake off some of this doom and gloom and remember I am but a fleshy idiot.


Spectacular bird of the day

Before I set off for Australia my Dad promised that I'd see some 'spectacular birds' on my travels.

I said Dad, I've already seen the Lionesses a few times in England, it's nothing special ;)

anyway so it turns out he was not wrong.
It's a scary bird
I have to confess I was pretty alarmed when I first encountered these fellas in Sydney's Botanic Garden. Are they not... gross? They look pre-historic and make a right loud fuss in the trees, flapping around, honking like geese.

At the festival, I got talking to a Sydneysider called Peter who told me that these are known locally as 'bin chickens' for their habit of rooting around in rubbish for food. When I asked him what they are, he said he didn't know because everyone calls them bin chickens.

For the twitchers among us, Google tells me that it is an Australian white ibis.

But it is perhaps more helpful to know that in order to protect their nests the Threskiornis molucca will swoop and attack pedestrians. When Peter goes out running, he wears a bucket hat to protect his neck from their nips.

It's funny, but I'm also scared. And if it's the most threatening example of Australian wildlife I encounter while I'm out here then I'll be mighty relieved.
If you have any thoughts about the social conscience of sports writers or want to tell me about a cool bird to look out for or simply want to scream aaaaaahhh cuz you're too excited for the World Cup to start or for any other reason then you can and definitely should reply to this email! And don't forget to share me with your pals because when the tournament actually kicks off this shit's gunna get HOT 🔥

The Square Ball 2023 Summer Special

The cover of the TSB Summer Special 2023, featuring Abbie Brown of Leeds United Women photographed by Lee Brown
  • Abbie Brown talks to Flora Snelson
  • Ross McCormack with Rob Conlon
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And more! • 164 pages • £8
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