Matildas’ Mary Fowler embraces new status but sidesteps the limelight

<span>Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Less than 24 hours after landing back in Australia, Mary Fowler sits on a child’s stool with a table of kindergarteners, sharing morning tea and politely answering their stream of questions.

Whether the Matildas star is navigating a press pack or a room of preschoolers, she remains unfazed.

Her best friend? Goalkeeper Lydia Williams. When did she start playing football? Aged seven. Can she high five? Yes, but why are you high-fiving me with tongs.

It’s easy to forget Fowler, now a household name, is just 20 when you consider the meteoric rise of her career.

In the past four years, she’s had a stint in the A-League Women, two years with Montpellier HSC, nabbed a four-year contract with English Women’s Super League club Manchester City and scored a defining goal in the quarter-finals of the Tokyo Olympics – all before the 2023 World Cup.

But it was her crucial role in this year’s Matildas team, stepping up after captain Sam Kerr was ruled out for two games, that catapulted her to national stardom. This year, Fowler was the second most Googled Australian according to search trends, behind only her teammate and captain Kerr.

On Wednesday, she was announced as childcare provider Rise & Shine’s latest brand ambassador, a change of pace from the covers of Marie Claire and endless media frenzy about her relationship with NRL star Nathan Cleary.

“Football is something I want to do for myself but it’s important to give something back to the community and to be able to look back at my career and think I did something more,” she says.

“Starting out you don’t really think too much about these things – I never would’ve thought I’d have the opportunities I do now … but being in the spotlight has made me realise the responsibility you have to all these people that are watching you. I’ve always had a passion for working with kids and hope to have kids one day so … it’s a privilege to be in this position – in a role to inspire the next generation.”

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Fowler says she came into the sport at the “perfect time”.

When she began playing football as a kid in Cairns, it was in all boys teams. A-League Women had just been established. Now, she’s one of 13 Australian female footballers currently playing in the WSL. Couple that with a home World Cup that cemented the Matildas as Australia’s most beloved national team, and women are experiencing a golden era.

“It’s crazy – I would never think that would happen,” she says.

“It makes me really excited – for myself and the other girls to have the opportunity we have now, it’s been incredible the kind of growth the game has seen.”

Fowler remains expert, though, at keeping herself out of the limelight.

While the “phone started ringing for her agents” when the tournament wrapped up, she’s still living a relatively normal life in England.

“I feel very ordinary which I love,” she says. “I take the tram to training, it feels like I’m playing local football. I definitely have Googled myself after the World Cup but that kind of stuff – I try to stay out of it … to know who I am and not get too bothered by other people.

“I’ve always thought the biggest way to inspire people is by being myself … I just try to be genuine and if that makes someone want to go after a dream then that’ll make me happy.”

Fowler has two weeks off before returning to England, where her club is trying to clinch a WSL title against their rivals, Chelsea.

Before the World Cup, Fowler struggled to start off the bench for Manchester City. Yet midway through this year’s season, she’s already played more than double the minutes of the 2022-23 campaign.

“Since being there I’ve grown so much as a player and person,” she says. “For me the most important thing is I’m enjoying it, we have a really good bunch of girls at the club, so no regrets.”

Pending the floods in north Queensland, she’s planning to spend Christmas in Cairns with her family, who have remained safe. In the meantime, Fowler is still wrapping her head around the manner in which the Matildas have shaped the future of sport in the nation.

“It’s been an incredible year, it’s hard to put into words how big it’s been … we were very lucky,” she says. “The whole World Cup has been an amazing experience for me – I learned in that tournament to have fun and create memories and I think that’s exactly what happened.

“It gives me goose bumps when I remember moments from those matches – seeing everyone there and hearing the crowd.”