Each year Grattan selects its best books of the past 12 months as recommended reading for the Prime Minister and all Australians over the summer holidays. In this summer series, we discuss some of the works on the list with the people who wrote them.

In this special podcast, award-winning Mununjali author, Ellen Van Neerven, discusses their book Personal Score with Grattan associates Esther Suckling and Dominic Jones. The book is an expansive examination of race, gender and sexuality, told through the lens of playing sport.

Read the full Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List

Read Personal Score


Kat Clay: Each year Grattan Institute selects its best books of the past 12 months as recommended reading for the Prime Minister and all Australians over the summer holidays.

As part of our podcast summer series, we’ve invited some of the authors to discuss these works on our podcast. Today we have writer Ellen van Neerven to discuss their book Personal Score.

Dominic Jones: Hi and welcome to the Grattan podcast coming to you from the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I’m Dominic Jones, an associate in the health team and with me is Esther Suckling, an associate in economic policy. With us today to discuss their latest release, Personal Score is award winning Mununjali author, editor, and educator Ellen Van Neerven.

Thanks so much for joining us, Ellen.

Ellen van Neeven: Thanks so much for having me.

Dominic Jones: Personal Score is, is a book about football and sport, but really it’s, it’s pretty remarkable in its breadth. You tackle everything from race and gender to climate change and health. And I understand that it was, it was years in the making, so I guess my first question for you is, is what were the big drivers for putting together such an expansive project?

Ellen van Neeven: Yeah, this book did take a while to think about, like, what would be the best format for it. What would be the best mode? I’m someone who, you know, grew up really loving and playing sport. And that was with me from a young age through the influence of my family, both my Dutch family and my Aboriginal family.

And growing up in Southeast Queensland. Also, what was with me from a very young age was also a love for writing and so, having, you know, written fiction and poetry before, there was just something that was telling me that I wanted to write about sport because it was such a big part of my life, such a big part of growing up, and I had a lot of strong memories particularly from you know, when I started playing football at the age of 11, particularly around that, like 11 to maybe like 20, like those like formative years playing, being part of teams traveling for sport.

 I wanted to write those memories down and think about what they meant. But I also wanted to think about sport in a broader context because we all have a relationship to sport in some way, and I was really thinking about, you know, what it meant to play and to exercise and to train on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and I was also thinking about, Just, you know, other, you know, intersections around race gender, sexuality, and wanting to write, you know, an expansive book that, you know, couldn’t cover everything, but, you know, at least tried to sort of cover the things that I was interested in and I thought that maybe other people were thinking about as well.

Dominic Jones: You mentioned about thinking about what it means to play sport on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. One of the parts of the book quite early on that I found really interesting, It was when you talked about the long tradition of sport in Australia prior to colonization. And particularly the way that you contrasted that with non Indigenous sport, could you tell us a little bit more about that contrast?

Ellen van Neeven: When we think about indigenous athletes, like you know, amazing superstars of sport that we’ve grown up watching, we watched today and we think about like indigenous connection to sport, it’s actually part of a, like a long continuance of playing sport on this land prior to colonization.

And so, you know, I was thinking about the sports. That, you know, have been played here. Like Weme, the stone bowling game played on Aranda Country. Woggabaliri, which is a round ball possum skin kicking game from Ngunnawal Country. I think about those sports and their relationship to place, the materiality of country, and also their inclusivity, and yeah, very community focus.

And I think those traditions of sport from an Indigenous perspective the values of sport that we need to remember today and we certainly can’t forget. And I really wanted to sort of, yeah, just really think about that, that link from the past and the continuing past to where we are now as a nation that, you know, really prides itself as a sporting nation.

Sport in Australia, has this long history of being, you know, excluding certain people from playing, whether, you know, it’s a long time after colonization before there was any progress in, like, women playing sport here.

It was really a very much like a middle class pursuit as well. Yeah, it’s just very different to, how, I imagine my ancestors, being on this country. And so sport in Australia has, you know, these issues around inclusion and also extraction both from community and from place as well.

And so I wanted to sort of think about sport in a more holistic way and imagine a future where there would be less barriers for people to play. For example, you know, something like racism is so prominent in sport, unfortunately, and still in 2023. And this, you know, everyone seems to think that that’s just part and parcel of sport, but I wanted to sort of show that we can really think about it.

And we can, we really, it really has no place in sport.

Esther Suckling: One thing I loved about your writing, Ellen, is the really vivid way that you describe the moments on the pitch. I think I started playing around 11 years as well and it resonated so much. You talk about the ball being soft and ready at your feet. You talk about what it feels like to be in that kind of tunnel vision in front of the goal .

And to pull on something you just said before, you also talk a lot about the place and the surroundings of any pitch you’re playing on, the animals, the wildlife, and I just wanted to give our listeners a sense of that amazing way that you describe the game and the place. I was wondering if you might be able to share with us a memory of a highlight of your football or soccer life and also where were you, like what was going on around you at the time?

Ellen van Neeven: Let me just try and think, because when you, when you were talking, I just had, I had a lot of memories come through. It’s a very, sensory thing to, to play football, to play any type of sport.

Even just the smell of cut grass can just bring back a lot of memories for me I grew up in Queensland. We played in some really amazing places. A lot of them were quite, you know, bushy and we would travel a lot.

 Yeah, I remember going to places like, Bundaberg and Mackay for the first time and just being really, taken by my surroundings as a young person and when working out where I was. One of my favourite memories, of playing, and I think this, maybe this is a little bit different from what you were expecting, because it’s maybe less sensory, but it just came to mind and that was when, I was playing for the Southside Eagles and we actually made a final against, like, our local rivals, Carina, and then the final was on the same night as I was asked to perform, in the middle of Brisbane with the late Uncle Archie Roach. I was feeling incredibly grateful for that opportunity.

Ellen van Neeven: But I felt like that there was a clash and I would have to choose between the two. That was my twenties was thinking about, starting to have these amazing opportunities as a writer, but feeling like they were potentially meaning that I had to miss training and games, which was such a constant for me, more than anything was, it was a way that I grew up, you know, around thinking about the match on the weekend, thinking about going to training, having that consistency, being with the team.

Sometimes there’s pressure to either be into sports or be into the arts. You can’t be into both in certain circles. I think maybe, Naarm, Melbourne does a really good job at potentially bridging that gap. Because it feels like everyone’s, you know, into sport and can also go to an arts event.

Yeah, there’s certain areas where you feel like you have to choose a camp and depending on what camp you choose, you know, there’s this, like, stereotype around the other. You know, that moment sticks to me because I managed to do both that night, you know, I had this, this neighbor, my neighbor Maria, who, took me to the theater, I did my performance, got to meet the wonderful Uncle Archie, and you know, be on that stage, and then we, you know, we quickly got in the car, getting changed in the car, you know, you know, you know what it’s like getting, getting the gear on.

Esther Suckling: that in style.

Ellen van Neeven: Absolutely try and do it as like less awkwardly as possible. And then, you know, rocked up 10 minutes before kickoff, had a little jog around, saw the teammates. And, you know, we played our heart out on that, you know, it was kind of winter. So it was cooler night

Esther Suckling: hmm.

Ellen van Neeven: of a bit of a damp field. And yeah, we, we lost against the Carina dolphins.

They were the better team, but what sort of sticks. sticks out to me is just, yeah, the commitment that I had to get there, but also the commitment with my team, you know, we played a really good game.

Esther Suckling: Thanks for sharing that story, Ellen. It seriously does remind me of that scene in Bend It Like Beckham when she’s at the wedding of her brother and they just forget the game for half time. I just wanted to follow up with one question there. Talk about kind of like the sensory aspect to football, which I really relate to and all the joy in playing, but something that comes through in your book quite a lot as well is the fear sometimes when you’re playing the game.

 And, one part that stuck out to me was the bike path section of your work, which talks about a field that you were playing at and how nearby there had been this series of assaults of women who are running and moving every day by the same man. And it reminded me of just to share one story from my playing times a few years ago, there was a really tragic murder of a woman in Melbourne called Eurydice Dixon.

I don’t know if you. But it was on the exactly on the spot where I train every single Tuesday and Thursday and still do. And the period after that was just like trying to kind of reckon with the fear around being outside and just playing a sport when it felt dangerous just to walk, to practice and back. When I read that section, it really evoked that for me and you, beyond that, you talk about, you know, being a queer person playing sport and some of the hostility on the pitch that you have experienced there.

And I’m just kind of wondering what has kept you coming back to playing in those times when it actually feels like playing can be this really scary experience, or it can be quite hostile.

Ellen van Neeven: It’s really sad and really, yeah, just, unfortunately, a common experience for particularly women and gender diverse people in terms of thinking about their safety. When they want to play a sport that they love, or, you know, even, you know, my friend, Laura, who tells me that, you know, she used to run in the mornings but just had to stop because, you know, having that harassment and also just feeling for her safety.

YeAh, that’s so unfortunate that we, you know, live in a society where, women and gender diverse people don’t feel safe, participating in sport and exercising in, you know, any ways, or even just have to make those considerations when they decide to, you know, to go out and play.

I think maybe individual sports I would maybe wouldn’t have that motivation to keep going, but having a team environment really helped and also just having people to, you know, talk to about that. When I played for the Brunswick Zebras, I had a very supportive team and that was around sexuality as well, I think there were, you know, when I was growing up, you know, being a queer person, even before I really had the language to describe, like, who I was, there was other people that were telling me who I was and potentially that I didn’t belong. So there was definitely team environments where this felt really, you know, scary to, you know, to be in, in environments where people might sort of say, homophobic things, or they might actually target you. And so when I was older, I felt very comfortable and safe and seen. So like my lovely team, the Brunswick Zebras where I played for a couple of seasons. I think about how a beautiful, natural environments, whether they might be, you know, what, what I talk about in the book around the bike paths around the sort of mountainous area of, near where I grew up.

The bushwalks, the parks, these beautiful environments, it’s really, sad that because of, the way that violence is, is gendered, that these places so important and healing for us can also be places of fear.

It kind of also goes to this like real, colonial idea of places, of country being somewhere that, that, that’s fearful and, and, and scary where it’s actually the other way around, like we, as people we can cause much more harm to the natural environment than the natural environment can to us.

Dominic Jones: And on that, the book was written sort of just in the lead up to the Women’s World Cup this year. I think it felt like a very transformative time potentially for women’s sport in Australia. Pubs and cafes across the country sort of being transformed into, you know, everyone knows every member of the, of the Matildas now.

And I wonder whether you think that the World Cup was sort of the transformative moment that is building us in the right direction or, and what your experience of, of the World Cup was in that way.

Ellen van Neeven: Talking to people that have been like around women’s sport for a while, there’s like two camps. Some people that just were just like, yeah, this is, this was everything. And it was everything, but there’s another group that have, you know, a very cynical around this, you know, just being a flash in the pan and seeing very, like, kind of more short term progress and sort of seeing, you know, a fickle public that might turn their attention elsewhere now that we no longer have the, the World Cup on home soil.

I mean, what an amazing month it was in so many ways. And I had never experienced anything like that in my lifetime. The memories alone, I think will sustain us for a while, but also, you know, there was definitely some structural progress that happened maybe not enough, in terms of a global perspective as well, you were having teams on the other side of things like Nigeria and Jamaica that weren’t actually getting paid or had to sort of pay, for their way to the tournament.

 There’s definitely a long way to go. But absolutely the Matildas being such a, so, recognizable and Sam Kerr just being so recognizable. There’s really no other team that you would want to watch as, as much as them at the moment. Yeah, it’s just been great to see. It’s, it’s fantastic for those athletes because that’s what they’ve been, you know, fighting for. Their whole life, you know someone like Sam Kerr, you know, sort of ask people, ask her like who are your role models growing up. She doesn’t name female athletes and that’s just because there wasn’t that visibility there.

There wasn’t that pathway there. We grew up with a lot of hope that those things will happen, but, to have it now. Be the benchmark and for, you know, the younger generation to, know that that that’s, something that they can actually make a career out of playing. It gives so much like hope for the next generation of athletes.

But yeah, absolutely. There’s still. a long way to go in grassroots and community football and in other sports as well as thinking about the stark contrast between how much, you know, money male athletes get compared to female athletes.

Dominic Jones: Yeah, I’m interested in what is the right sphere for progress, as you say, is it obviously this sort of representation on the world stage is, is incredible. But do you see it as maybe more the grassroots club as being the fundamental level of, of change that will be, will be happening.

Ellen van Neeven: I think it’s equally important for a professional female athlete to feel that they’re, you know, they’re getting paid that they, have, you know, everything that, that is on offer, they’re not, training in some sort of, back of the clubhouse sort of situation where they have the potential to, injure themselves or something, that they have everything on offer.

That a male athlete has, but it’s equally important for, that young person, whatever gender they are, that they also feel like that they have support from their local club to. To achieve what they want to achieve. And putting those resources into the places that, you know, need it the most whether it might be, rural and remote communities thinking about who has, access to what they need and who. I think just feeling like you can. Do whatever you want, no matter who you are and where you

Esther Suckling: I can literally think of like 100 things going through my head as you’re talking about, especially when you’re talking about the World Cup, I just feel like there’s so many different experiences and moments. Like, I don’t know if afterwards you would just sit down with teammates or friends and you could just chat for hours about like this particular tackle, this goal, this game.

I most importantly, where were you?

Ellen van Neeven: Mm.

Esther Suckling: the Sam Kerr goal against the Lionesses? Do

Ellen van Neeven: Oh my gosh, where was I? Yes, I do remember. That was so, what a goal

Esther Suckling: What

Ellen van Neeven: was. So I experienced the World Cup, sometimes in stadiums, sometimes at home watching and sometimes in the pub with mates. And that was a really, I don’t know about you guys, but that was a really good spectrum to have. I think if I, you know, as much as the stadium experience was amazing it was also so overwhelming.

So sometimes I just loved, you know, being at home having sort of the ability to just, you know, be comfortable in front of the

Dominic Jones: You’re at your most vulnerable in the 10th minute of the penalty shootout so it’s better to be on the couch than the stadium.

Ellen van Neeven: Oh my gosh, that penalty shootout, I think, Kerr goal was special. I mean, I was on the couch watching that game. I wouldn’t have been sitting. I would have been standing and yelling. I think that Kerr goal was just amazing because, you know, we’d just been so obsessive about, you know, Is she going to play?

Is she going to come on? We’re missing her. Is the team, can the team, you know, cope without her, which they definitely show that they could, you know, lots of people, lots of players stood up. I think they all handled it so well. And Kerr having that off field presence as a captain, being very supportive and then, so I was really happy for her to come on and make an impact in that goal. will definitely be one of those goals that we will repeat the score, not so much.

I mean, I was so hoping that we could just at least beat england. And I was at the final England, Spain

Esther Suckling: Yeah, me too.

Ellen van Neeven: And that atmosphere was great. And the, you know,

Esther Suckling: Ugh.

Ellen van Neeven: everything that also came out after the match as well, like that,

Esther Suckling: Yeah.

Ellen van Neeven: a whole story in itself, but, yeah, definitely has an historic moment, for sure.

Dominic Jones: Thanks so much for, for joining us today, Ellen. I think I can speak for Esther and myself when we say we, we, we love the book and we’re really looking forward to hopefully lots of people getting their hands on it this summer and, reading it by the beach in the absence of, of their football season.

Ellen van Neeven: Thank you both so much, it was lovely to talk to you.

Dominic Jones: For all the listeners where can they get their hands on your book?

Ellen van Neeven: Well, you can get your hands on this book Personal Score: Sport, Culture and Identity, in all good bookstores. It’s published by the University of Queensland Press which you can also have a look at on the UQP website.

Dominic Jones: Fantastic. thanks for listening everyone. You can find the Personal Score and all the other books on the Prime Minister’s reading list at our website grattan.edu.au