When Aivi Luik made her World Cup debut in 2019, the 34-year-old played out a dream 25 years in the making.
Over the next week, she has the chance to fulfil another life-long aspiration as the Matildas look to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but her journey to this point is one of grit and resilience where she plays for “all those who can’t.”
Luik set out on her footballing path as a nine-year old. Growing up as one of seven kids she was inspired to play after watching the US 1994 World Cup with her family.
She took up football with her younger brother and eventually went on to play US college soccer as a teenager in 2005-2006.
She was named ‘MVP’ after captaining her college team, The Nevada Wolf Pack, to their first-ever NCAA College Cup, where scored the game-winning penalty kick.
After starting in the W-League with Brisbane Roar in 2009, Luik made her debut for the Matildas in 2010. She played part in Australia’s AFC Asian Cup victory the same year, but there was a seven-year absence before fans would see her put on the green and gold again.
Although the tenacious midfielder was plying her trade both overseas and in the W-League, she was plagued by a long-term injury, hamstrung for five years with bilateral hamstring tendinopathy.
It was several years of “rehab plans, doctors and specialists with no improvement,” Luik said of her prolonged injury.
Aivi wasn’t selected for the 2011 and 2015 World Cups along with the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, a tough blow for Luik whose dream was to represent her country on both stages.
Coming into the ‘veteran’ years of her career, many assumed Luik’s footballing aspirations would not be realised, but she knew she still had more to give and the drive and passion to do so.
Luik had surgery on her hamstring and after a successful season at her Spanish club Levante in 2019, piqued the interest of Matildas new Head Coach, Ante Milicic.
She gained Matildas selection and made her first start in seven years when she played in the their Cup of Nations 4-1 win against Korea Republic.
No longer hindered by injury, Luik continued to impress and finally made her World Cup debut the same year, nine years after her initial Matildas debut.
“I feel really blessed, because it had been a lifelong goal of mine to make the Matildas, to play in a World Cup and go to an Olympics too,” she said of her long-awaited achievement.
“When you’ve been with your national team for 10 years, any athlete, no matter who you are, is going to have a lot of ups and downs physically, mentally and emotionally.
“Knowing that I’ve been able to overcome these hurdles and push through by believing and trusting my instincts has made it all worth it,” she continued.
“Thinking about all that hard work and finally seeing things happen feels really, really good.”
Luik embodies the Matildas ‘Never Say Die’ slogan to a tee, which is something she thanks her mum for, but she also explains why it is so important to her.
“As a kid, my mum always worked at her own pace so we either had to keep up with her or get left behind,” Luik said.
“She didn’t like laziness and was a big believer in hard work which she instilled in us as youngsters.
“I think part of the reason I didn’t give up comes from wanting to do my family, supporters and country proud,” she continued.
“I want to be a good representation of who Australia is and to show others that we are people who don’t give up.”
Although football is a great love for Luik, she says she is mindful of the fact that losing a game or suffering an injury is relatively minor in the grand scheme of what others may go through in the world.
“I try to keep things in perspective because there are so many people who do so much more and work so much harder, and they need to do that to survive,” she said.
“If they’re doing that, why can’t we go out there and give everything we have?
“There are going to be times when you’re out of breath and you literally can’t run anymore but knowing there are other people in the world who have to work really hard or are suffering, that gives me the motivation to keep pushing.”
When she steps foot on the pitch, her country, her teammates, her family and her God and are what drives the resilient Melbourne City star but there is a deeper motivation for giving her all, playing for those who don’t have the opportunity to do so.
“When I played in the World Cup, I’d written ‘for all those who can’t’ on my boots,” Luik explained.
“I give my everything for all of those who physically or mentally can’t. For those who are told that they can’t for whatever reason – because they’re not good enough, or because they’re a girl… that’s a big one,” she continued.
“We are able to fulfill our desires to play in our country so easily, we are so blessed, but you’ve got girls in other countries who would be literally risking their lives if they decided to follow their passion and try to play football.
“I play for all of those girls, or for anyone, whoever it is, for whatever reason, it’s for them.”
Originally published for Optus Sport