'Heartbroken' Lisa De Vanna walks away from football

ESPN Illustration

"IT'S BULLS---, ABSOLUTE BULLS---," an angry Lisa De Vanna says down the line. "I've been cut. That's it. I'm done."

It is Sunday June 13, 2021. The night before, Australia's second-most capped player, De Vanna, had been told that she wouldn't be in the Matildas squad to play friendlies against Denmark and Sweden. The decision all-but ended her dream to appear at the Tokyo Olympics, and the official squad announcement was to take place 1 p.m. the next day.

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson had made the tough call in more ways than one, the Swede saying "I feel that we are overloaded with attacking threats -- forwards and attacking midfielders -- and I've had to leave some of them out of this roster at this time, some really quality players that individually, quality wise, might have deserved to be in."

His decision to omit the 36-year-old from his plans had confirmed what many had suspected: De Vanna's international football career was over.

"Tony told me I wasn't playing with enough intensity. Jesus, does he know that's what I run on?" De Vanna asks.

"He said I didn't track back enough. Sam Kerr never tracks back! Why would I change my game at this point in my career? What else is there to do? Beg? I'm not going to beg to play for my f---ing country.

"I feel like I was given false hope, jumping through every hoop, then the goalposts were moved."

De Vanna's absence from the squad marked the culmination of what had been a frustrating few years for the legendary striker, once regularly considered among the best female players on the planet.

De Vanna has played for Washington Spirit, Fiorentina and Melbourne Victory among others and held Australia's record of most goals scored (47) until Kerr surpassed her during the Matildas' Olympic campaign. She is a two-time FIFA Women's World Cup All-Star, an FFA Female Footballer of the year, a Julie Dolan Medal recipient, as well as a five-time W-League champion.

But for all the goals, and all the adoration, few knew the complex story behind De Vanna's 150 caps for Australia.

It's a chilly June morning in Melbourne. Steam rises off bodies of rowing crews going through their morning routine on the Yarra River. De Vanna arrives and looks edgy. Not the confident player who is normally at ease ripping hearts out of defences.

"To be honest, out of all the interviews I've ever done, you've got me feeling more nervous than most," she says.

"I think you're going to bring out a lot of things."

After Gustavsson was given the top job in Australian women's football in September 2020, due diligence was done by working through who would be in his squad for the Olympics, and with a further view down the track to the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023 in Australia and New Zealand.

The Swede spoke to as many players as he possibly could and gave his thoughts on where they were at with their game and what they needed to do to improve and impress. De Vanna was one of those.

"We spoke and he said, 'I want you to play a season of W-League and I want to see an X-factor,'" De Vanna recalls. "I went into those games fighting for my life. I went into those games thinking, 'You want to see Lisa De Vanna? I'm going to show you Lisa De Vanna!'

"And I know I showed enough. I hoped he'd be thinking, 'Now, that's a player I need on my team. Not only did she perform, but she showed fight. I need that when it matters.'"

Perform she did.

De Vanna believes she earned place in Matildas camp

Lisa de Vanna reflects on missing the Matildas squad for the Tokyo Olympics, and her final efforts to earn that spot.

Early in the W-League season, playing for Victory against crosstown rivals Melbourne City, De Vanna produced a moment of magic that has been commonplace across her glittering career, making something from nothing with her back to goal deep in her own half.

After a quick swivel as she let the ball do the work through her own legs, De Vanna was away, leaving an awkward defender stranded. Setting off towards goal, she found extra pace, skipping past another City player as the defence came across to shut down the move, and dribbling into the penalty area. Steadying before finishing, De Vanna's shot went like a bullet into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. It was a statement if there ever were one.

Predictably, the play was crowned the W-League Goal of the Season. But De Vanna's contribution was much more than that.

Her experience helped a relatively young Victory outfit to their first Grand Final appearance since 2014, before playing her part in the club's championship win.

De Vanna's reward was a selection in Gustavsson's 30-strong Australian-based talent identification squad. Her luck ran out at the next hurdle, cut from the squad for Denmark and Sweden friendlies.

"Personally, I don't think I earned the right to go to the Olympic Games," De Vanna admits. "But I at least should have been in that camp."

That admission is welcome in a way, as it would have been easy to assume De Vanna was oozing sour grapes. But what did it mean for her football career?

"I just think I'm at the point where I can't recover from what I've been through," she says. "It's very hard to put that jersey on when you don't have the support or you don't feel like you're respected.

"They've made it a lot easier for me to walk away. At this stage of my life, I don't want to... "

De Vanna's head bows down, her eyes clenched closed, and a tear trickles down her cheek as she chokes up, but after about 10 seconds she regains composure and finishes her answer.

"It's more like: 'How did this f---ing happen to me?'" she explains.

Heartbroken De Vanna walks away from football

Matildas great Lisa De Vanna feels she's given everything she can to her football career, after 150 appearances for the national side.

"Everything, the way I thought it would end, it didn't. I'm just struggling to deal with it. I can't look at a football right now. I can't even walk my dog on a field.

"My biggest fear was I'd get forgotten in the game and not looked after. That scared me.

"If I knew how it would have ended 20 years ago, I wouldn't have went down those 20 years. I just want to be free as a person, like closure. Like time to make it better. I don't know. I'm heartbroken."

It is a startling admission. The Matildas legend and Australia's second most-capped women's player wishes she'd never played the game in the first place. The sheer magnitude of uncertainty of what comes after an elite athlete's career was starting to hit home.

"When I think about the 2007 World Cup, I think of something new," De Vanna recalls.

"When I think about 2011, I think about a new generation that's coming.

"When I think of the 2015 World Cup, I think about a new brand of football.

"And when I think about 2019, I think about the downfall of my career."

Watching the Olympics and seeing the Matildas get out of their group, win an amazing quarterfinal against Great Britain, before bowing out of gold medal contention at the hands of Sweden wasn't easy.

For someone who'd been part of Matildas' squads since 2004, emotions ran high for De Vanna. She wanted the side to succeed, but at the same time desperately wanted to still be part of the group.

We'll never know what De Vanna could have brought to the table in Japan. Many believe, however, that she could have caused havoc as a pinch-hitter off the bench late in a contest, running at tired legs, her directness putting defenders in two minds.

The FFA appointed Alen Stajcic to lead the Matildas through the 2015 Women's World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games after guiding the team to the final of the 2014 Women's Asian Cup as caretaker-coach.

Australia were beaten in the quarterfinals by Japan at the World Cup, while a year later they also bowed out in the final eight after losing to host nation Brazil on penalties at the Rio Olympics.

Despite the quarterfinal eliminations, Stajcic's side played with verve and delivered a level of success Australia had never seen before, as the Matildas rose to No. 4 in the FIFA Rankings -- their highest position in history.

However, concerns from within the team environment emerged as early as July 2018, after the Tournament of Nations where the Matildas finished runners-up behind the United States.

In October 2018, a player-welfare survey conducted by the FFA and the players' union was handed out to squad members. Players were asked a series of questions under headings of Health & Wellbeing, Psychological Distress, Psychological Safety and Player Insights.

A confused De Vanna contacted Stajcic, who may not have known at the time that the survey would eventually help to seal his fate as head coach.

De Vanna discusses Stajcic dismissal

Lisa de Vanna shares her thoughts on the sacking of Alen Stajcic as Matildas coach in 2019.

"It was weird, it was random. I called Staj and asked him: 'What is this survey?' De Vanna remembers.

"He said just fill it out, it's just a PFA form to get a review of how the team is going. It's just normal protocol."

Less than two months later, Stajcic was gone.

Officially, the FFA "board formed the view, following a process undertaken by management, that the Matildas would benefit from a new coach for the FIFA World Cup in France."

A review from an independent three-person panel appointed by the FFA later in the year found no bias behind the dismissal.

De Vanna, however, bristles when the subject is broached.

"He was hard-done by," De Vanna says.

"That man changed women's football in Australia. He got us to top four in the world. We became a household name because of him and we became one of the fiercest teams in the world because of him. He brought us a lot of success and that was purely because he had so much belief in us as players.

"Hand on my heart, if Staj had stayed we would have come close to winning the 2019 World Cup.

"Who sacks a coach five months out from a World Cup? Then gets a coach that has no experience in the women's game?

"The World Cup is played every four years for a reason because it takes four years to prepare and build for this."

"It would be easy for Lisa De Vanna to continue playing, but the fire has gone out inside. Representing the Matildas was all she ever wanted to do and the rest was the vehicle that helped her achieve it."

Stajcic's friendship with De Vanna runs deep. From the days when he coached against her, De Vanna says she was always in his face as he plotted to put her off her game.

A running battle between the two on the sideline was almost as much a feature as the game itself.

Playing for Brisbane Roar in 2010, De Vanna had the last laugh over Stajcic. Her winner in the Roar's 2-1 over Sydney FC in the W-League Grand Final was sweet, but the pair hugged and exchanged pleasantries at the final whistle.

"We had a long history of knowing each other and it wasn't until he became head coach of the Matildas that I realised we had so much in common."

Despite the pair's rocky start, Stajcic bestowed upon De Vanna one of her greatest honours.

"He handed me the [Matildas] captaincy -- I broke down, I cried," she says.

"To captain the team was more... I didn't think I had the traits needed. It was one of my happiest times."

By De Vanna's own admission, keeping her happy isn't the easiest of tasks and, in a sense, she's wired differently.

"I'm intense and at times inappropriate to people. I really don't give a sh-- if people don't like me," she explains. "I'm an honest person and I think that's probably a blessing and a curse at times.

"Sometimes I'm my own worst enemy."

Speaking to coaches and teammates who have worked alongside De Vanna, one gets the feeling her talent on the field is like having an extra player, so putting up with her outbursts and disruptiveness is worth it in the end.

Tom Sermanni, Matildas head coach from 2005 to 2012, felt the wrath of De Vanna many times when he was in charge of the green and gold, and it all came to a head in 2011.

A camp at Terrigal in New South Wales saw a relatively new squad picked with many fresh, young faces mixed with experienced players.

Despite coaching staff developing a strategy to manage De Vanna's unpredictable behavior, a training incident saw Sermanni bring it to a halt at the team hotel, expelling De Vanna from the squad only days out from the team's friendly with New Zealand.

The decision was to become a big serving of humble pie for the star striker.

"A friend came to watch me play New Zealand," De Vanna says. "I told her, 'I'm not playing, I've been thrown out of camp.

"She says: 'Look, I've come all the way to watch the Matildas and you're coming with me.'

"That was the first time I had to pay for a Matildas ticket and stand in a line to get in the ground to watch a game I was supposed to play in. I was so angry. My friend said this is a good thing because you need to learn that you just can't lose your sh-- all the time."

What De Vanna failed to tell Sermanni was that leading up to that camp, she was playing in the United States for Florida-based club magicJack -- a team that had many USWNT players as her teammates. Put simply, De Vanna had a front row seat to how serious the American players were taking their preparations for the upcoming World Cup.

On arrival back in Australia, she felt a huge contrast at the first Matildas training session.

"They were mucking around and I just picked up the closest ball and booted it and then I take off," De Vanna says. "I'm stressed. I don't think those women understood professionalism at that time."

The 2007 World Cup seems a lifetime ago. Bursting onto the scene like a bull at a gate, De Vanna was the young sensation, banging in four goals in her side's run to the quarterfinals.

Australia's captain at the time, Cheryl Salisbury, led the way both on the field and off for De Vanna. The Matildas' most-capped player was a mentor and the biggest influence on her development after taking De Vanna under her wing three years earlier.

"I was an arrogant 18-year-old," De Vanna said as a grin forms on her face. "The world was my oyster. I wanted to win, I wanted to be the best and I wanted to take this country to another level. Cheryl kept me level headed.

"She's the one person who could come up to me and say 'I'm disappointed in you,' and I would get a lump in my throat. Cheryl led by example. When you come from that generation, it's about a code of honour; what you leave for the next generation."

Like Salisbury before her, De Vanna wanted to help younger players coming into the side, as a mentor and, sometimes, financially by depositing money into accounts to those she knew were struggling on tour.

"Look, now you're painting me out to be Mother Teresa," De Vanna laughs. "I know it can be daunting coming into a squad with lots of personalities. I'm the first one to yell at them if they stuff up on the field -- but the first one to praise them when they do good."

The future for De Vanna is still unclear. It's still raw. Here's a person who was foremost a footballer. That was her job and she gave everything to perform at her peak every single time she laced her boots.

It would be easy for her to continue playing, but the fire has gone out inside. Representing the Matildas was all she ever wanted to do and the rest was the vehicle that helped her achieve it.

The past 18 months has taken a toll. Mentally rather than physically. She rues the fact her name sits one appearance from equalling, two caps from becoming, the Matildas' most-capped player.

Had she been selected for Australia's two home games against Chile after the 2019 World Cup, De Vanna would have achieved that milestone.

"I don't look at that but what was upsetting was I flew my family over, so I'm just assuming I'll play a part," she says. "I'm two caps away from breaking Cheryl's record. They're going to do the right thing. I get an email and my name isn't on the list. No one even called me."

A falling out with then-Matildas coach Ante Milicic, who replaced Stajcic after the latter's sacking, may have cost De Vanna that honour. When asked her thoughts on Milicic, the striker was blunt.

"Cold. I wouldn't call it a relationship -- we didn't talk too much. I'm not judging him as a person but as a coach, he made me feel worthless, not just as a player but as a human being," she says.

"In my personal opinion, he knew he probably wasn't going to be there for a long time so he needed to make sure he made certain people happy."

Milicic, whose own long-term future with the team was unclear, made the decision not to extend De Vanna's Matildas tenure via a Zoom meeting while she was in lockdown in Italy in 2020. The decision clearly still hurts De Vanna, coupled with what she believes was the FFA's lack of respect to a player who has bled green and gold for the best part of 20 years.

"My identity was taken away from me," she says. "I didn't know how a CEO could allow a [interim] coach to make a big decision on someone like myself who has given so much.

"I thought [FFA CEO] James Johnson could have pulled Ante aside and say, 'Let's wait until you decide if you're staying on or leaving before you make a decision like that.'

"There wasn't even a [national] technical director.

"I think I'm worthy of a sit-down and discussion [about] 'This is where we are and where we're at. What can we do to help you transition for you?'

"[Instead] I've had no support -- I've been excluded."

Before the latest COVID lockdown, De Vanna had been training with an Australian Rules club in Melbourne, just for something different. It may continue to fill a hole for a while.

"I'm unemployed now," she laughs. "I reckon I'd be good at it. I wouldn't mind tackling a few people. I'd probably give that a good go."

De Vanna hopes young women will also give football "a good go" in the years to come.

"I hope they get treated well," De Vanna says. "The Matildas are a brand. And every one of those players are representative of that.

"Pathways are so important and playing in the highest competitions in the world is so important because the best of the best in other countries are likely to be in those leagues.

"Just go out there and show the world what you can do. Never hold back."