During Female Football Week 2021, Football Australia will celebrate the remarkable achievements of women throughout our football community while recognising the far-reaching benefits the game has to offer.
First up is the powerful story of 65-year-old grassroots player Ildi Vukovich.
"When my husband passed away the thing that saved me was playing soccer."
Despite being born and raised a football fanatic, Ildi of Sydney's Northern Beaches never played the game she loved until she was 40 years of age. Over two decades later, she has taken part in the World Masters Games and is currently the oldest registered female player in the Manly Warringah Football Association at the age of 65.
Her late start to the game was not by choice.
Vukovich grew up in the Sydney inner-West suburb of Ashfield, with migrant parents who were members of the tight-knit Sydney Hungarian community, which included a number of influential football figures including broadcaster Les Murray.
Ildi has fond memories from her teenage years of watching legendary St. George Budapest teams play in the NSW First Division, cheering on Socceroos Johnny Warren, Manfred Schaefer, Harry Williams and Adrian Alston.
But no matter how hard she tried, Vukovich was never allowed to competitively play football herself.
“With family from central Europe, football is all you play as a child, and I always played around with the boys," she remembers.
“But when women’s soccer got introduced but my father said that was not appropriate, and after I got married my husband didn’t think it was the most appropriate thing either.
“But when I hit 40 I went, 'you know what, I’m old enough to make these decisions on my own.'
So I started at the ripe young age of 40 after over 20 years of wanting to play.”
Age has proven no barrier for Ildi, who is registered to play for Pittwater RSL FC's Over 40s outfit yet again this season. After her 2020 season was curtailed with injury, she has returned to fitness by playing futsal over the summer.
Ildi is a versatile player, having started her days playing for Avalon as an athletic left-winger, before shifting to fullback and more recently, a midfield role. Having previously played netball, she even tried her hand at goalkeeper.
It was in between the sticks that one of her most treasured footballing experiences arrived.
Alongside a handful of her Pittwater teammates, Ildi travelled to Turin for the World Masters Games in 2013.
“I remember one game in particular, it was 45 degrees on the artificial turf and I got psyched out by the heat," she recalls.
“Many goals went in and we lost, but I made some really good saves and had so many people that supported me. When I came off the field the coach from the other team congratulated me and told me that I had done a brilliant job in goals.
“Our team was a composite of Australian, Canadian and American players and my Canadian teammate who was a great player said one on one I had some of the best stats she had ever seen.
“There were some matches where I’d come off with both legs cramping because I played for 90 minutes, but that’s all part of the game.”
Ildi is a firm believer in the etiquette of the game and believes her philosophy of fair play has fuelled her ability to avoid injuries. However there is one reason that stands out above all as to why she continues to play.
"Because I love it," she enforces.
“I’ve tried some other sports and they're really sedentary, you don't really move around and I just love to run.
When my husband passed away the thing that saved me was playing soccer. For one-and-a-half hours, you think nothing of what is going on in your life except the round ball. It just gives you a break from all the things you need to deal with.
Ildi admits that it is unlikely she will be donning the Green and White of Pittwater for years to come. While she originally set her sights on a fitting farewell at last year's Masters Games in Tokyo, she now will take things a year at a time moving forward.
“Every year I go through and think, am I up for the mental and physical challenge?,” Vukovich says.
“I always put 65 as an age to retire, but it would be really lovely to go to one last Masters tournament.
“I’ll see how this season goes, it's not just a physical thing but a mental thing – you want to go into sport and be up for the challenge."
While Ildi's playing future is not set in stone, one thing is for sure: she will always remain entrenched in football the sport as a passionate supporter of the game.
Moving forward, she is excited by the continued change that the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup could drive.
“I think it's going to make things exciting," she anticipates.
“The women that I know and play with are going to soccer matches with their girls all the time.
“Comparing it (the 2023 World Cup) to the Sydney Olympics and the change that happened to sport in general after that, if that translates to women’s soccer I'm sure it will continue to grow exponentially.”
READ MORE: 'This is inspiring a new generation': Support builds for Football Australia's Legacy '23 plan
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