At 16 years old, Alicia Ferguson-Cook was thrust onto the international stage in an unforgettable moment. In the upcoming episode of the FFA Podcast, Ferguson-Cook reflects on the highs and lows of her decade long national team career.
In sport there are often jersey numbers that hold a special symbolism or significance. When it comes to the Westfield Matildas, the number 9 is such a jersey and for a moment in the team’s history, it belonged to Alicia Ferguson-Cook.
With a great Scottish name like Ferguson, a young Alicia never really had a choice of inheriting which sport she would play, football, or which club, Celtic, she would support.
Once the tag along of brother Scott, Ferguson-Cook soon made her own path in football as she was selected for the Queensland Academy of Sport at 13 years of age and made her Westfield Matildas debut as a 15-year-old.
A moment that lasts a lifetime
Beginning her national team career in 1997, Alicia Ferguson-Cook would go on to earn a decade long presence on the international stage, representing Australia at two FIFA Women’s World Cups, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and 2006 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
However, when you google her name, the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup remains the first defining moment of Ferguson-Cook’s career.
It was 90 seconds where a rush of blood to the head prematurely ended a lifelong dream. And, as it often is with such moments, it all really began many hours before.
“I didn't sleep that night; I was so nervous and so proud that I was getting an opportunity,” Ferguson said when she found out she would be starting in her first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup match.
“I was far too focused on the outcome. I was having these imaginations that I was going to score the winning goal without actually thinking about the process of what I needed to do to score the winning goal.”
As Advance Australia Fair echoed through the old Giants Stadium in New York, Ferguson-Cook felt the moment keenly.
“Brownie [Greg Brown], our coach, was getting us really hyped up because we always needed to impose ourselves physically on China, because technically there are a lot better than us.”
I was getting overly emotional, nearly crying when they played the national anthem.”
High emotions and a big moment were a recipe for what would be a disastrous moment for the teenager.
A little over 90 seconds into the match Ferguson’s left foot collided with the right leg of Chinese defender, Bai Jie, sending her up in the air, and crashing down onto the ground leaving her in a heap on the ground.
Ferguson was immediately sent off, gaining the infamy of having been shown the fastest red card in FIFA Women’s World Cup history. A distinction she holds to this day.
“From wanting to really make an impact early on, and unfortunately then I missed timed the challenge and I went straight back off again,” she said.
“I was devastated because in the moment, I didn't think the challenge was that bad. I thought the Chinese player had seen me coming very slowly.”
“I just remember standing up and pulling my sock up and hearing Sandy [referee Sandra Hunt] run over and say, ‘you're off’.”
“As I was walking off, I looked at the big screen and it was a 1 minute 37 or something and all I thought was 'Don't cry. Don't cry until you get off the field. Just don't cry.' But you see as I walked off, the floods of tears opened up.”
“I was in hysterics; I cried the rest of the game.”
For Ferguson-Cook, it was a moment of pure desolation but also of fury at herself and shame for leaving her teammates one short on the park.
“I went back to the training room. I was throwing stuff around. I was kicking boots. I was hitting walls,” she remembered.
“I had to leave the changing room at halftime because I didn't want to face any of my teammates because I was so embarrassed that I let them down. It was horrible.”
Despite her own emotion, Ferguson-Cook’s Westfield Matildas teammates were incredibly supportive post-match. Decades on, the moment now causes hilarity instead of humiliation.
“Di Alagich and I always have a laugh because she always says to me “Eesh, far out man. It was so hot that day. Thanks for leaving us with 10 men, mate, for 88 minutes of the game against China.”
“She was having hallucinations in the second half, because it was so hot!”
With time and space between the moment, Ferguson-Cook reflects on how that the red card gave her the ability to reshape her identity as a footballer and as a person.
“I feel it helped me mature quite quickly,” she said.
“I was always getting amped up, I was quite an angry player. I just realized that it didn't suit me.”
I thought, that's what maybe I needed to be, but I didn't. I just needed to have fun, relax and get on with it. And that's when I could perform at my best.”
“With that experience, I needed to prove to myself as well that I was good enough to be there.
“I just trained. I trained hard and I just turned up to the games and took it as they come. [I] stopped thinking of the outcome so much and just enjoyed it as well.”
Less than a year later, redemption was available to Ferguson-Cook in the shape of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
It provided that much wanted opportunity to prove herself and this time around, it was the most treasured memory of her football career.
Maturing into the Westfield Matildas
As life came at Ferguson-Cook it resulted in a shift in priorities. Relationships, injuries, work, all the encumbrances of adulthood saw football shift from the prominent portion of her identity to just one part.
After a period of injury, and a move from the forward line into the midfield, Ferguson settled into her role as a regular member of the Westfield Matildas’ squad and competing in the silver medal winning 2006 AFC Women’s Asian Cup campaign.
However, as the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup came around, a fresh new crop of young players – Lisa De Vanna, Sarah Walsh, Collette McCallum, Sally Shipard, Lauren Colthorpe - emerged to take centre stage.
Happy to be a squad player, Ferguson-Cook had a front row seat to the Westfield Matildas historic tournament.
Opening their campaign against Ghana. Eight years earlier in 1999, Australia had played Ghana and, despite their dominance throughout the game, let a 1-0 lead slip to draw with the African side.
With an emphatic 4-1 win over Ghana, Australia recorded their first ever win at a FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“There was a huge pressure that had been released,” Ferguson-Cook said.
“It was great. That set us up mentally for the tournament that we had and gave us some really good momentum going into the rest of the games.”
Equalising with Norway and Canada the Westfield Matildas run at the World Cup had come to an end after a brave effort against Brazil, succumbing 3-2 in Tianjin.
It was an immense battle for Australia, but the World Cup final bound Brazilians managed to capitalise on their opportunities.
Despite being on the bench for that game, Australia’s fight against Brazil remains one of Ferguson’s highlights from the 2007 campaign,
“We were competing with Brazil from one end to the other,” she said.
“As a spectator it was such a good game to watch, it had everything; drama and quality goals.”
“We left proud. Bowing out to Brazil at the time, who had a very good tournament, wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
The 2007 campaign catapulted women’s football in Australia into the mainstream. It introduced the public to the team, and it fuelled a period of unprecedented growth for Australian women’s football.
While for Ferguson-Cook it marked the end of an era, she left the national team with a sense of optimism thanks to the natural progression and development of the Westfield Matildas’ squad.
“We had improved in 2007 as a team and it was the next progression from 2007 to 2011,” she said.
“That was the next generation of our Matildas and how much potential those players have.”
“Seeing some of those younger players come through and it being one of those seminal moments where the level had stepped up.”
Since her retirement in 2009, Ferguson-Cook has worked as a football commentator and columnist and for her she couldn’t be more pleased and the rapid evolution of women’s football.
“I love the respect and visibility it's getting now,” Ferguson-Cook said.
“Respect for the quality of play it’s as simple as that. Seeing people respect the improvement in the ability and the quality of the play, for me, that's it. That's all I've ever been worried about anyway.”
Listen to Alicia Ferguson-Cook open up about her career in more detail as she joins the FFA Podcast on Wednesday.