It was late March when a moment on a W-League football pitch sent the game around the world – and it had nothing to do with football.
Former Matilda Rhali Dobson announced her retirement from professional football in order to support her partner Matt Stonham, who is fighting brain cancer.
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Incredibly, Dobson scored in her final game as her Melbourne City side secured a 2-1 win over Perth Glory but that wasn’t the end of the emotional scenes.
After the game, Dobson found Stonham before he got down on one knee and created one of the great viral sporting moments.
The video went around the world but like every viral moment, there was so much more that went into it.
Speaking on the ABC’s Australian Story, Dobson and Stonham opened up on their incredible love story.
The Hollywood style meet-cute
Every Hollywood love story needs first meeting that sets the protagonist at odds and this was no different.
Dobson was a football prodigy, making the Australian under-17s team as a 14-year-old and signing for the Newcastle Jets W-League side as a 16-year-old.
Stonham was also soccer player but a goalkeeper “because he couldn’t be bothered running anymore”, his mum told the program.
“Matt and I met on a very rainy day at Cessnock,” Dobson said. “I was a referee, I was on the line.
“He was having the worst game of his life, and I awarded his team a penalty, which the centre referee didn’t agree with, and there was nothing I could do about it.
“Matt proceeded to provide me with a verbal spray constantly for the remainder of the game. And he’s the only player to have ever made me cry as a referee.”
“Probably not my finest moment,” Stonham said.
She added: “I thought ‘he’s just a moron’, if I’m honest”.
But soon their love blossomed before Dobson made it all the way to the Matildas.
Unfortunately, she only managed one game against Brazil in 2014 before a change in coach saw her dumped from the squad with just 13 minutes of game time under her belt.
‘I screamed’: Dobson’s nightmare
In 2015, Stonham, was playing for Maitland Football Club when the lives of the couple both changed in an instant.
“Everything was fine, until it wasn’t,” she said. “He just fell to his knees, put up his hand and collapsed on the ground in the goal. It was away from play, the ball was down the other end of the field, so no-one was really paying attention to Matt.
“So I screamed. I think it still haunts him that he can still hear that scream to this day.”
Stonham couldn’t talk or feel his hands during the incident and they soon found out why.
Dobson said he was rushed into an MRI and within two hours the brain surgeon on call advised the pair Stonham had a brain tumour. Three weeks later he had brain surgery.
“Rhali was right there by my side just keeping me quiet, subdued and positive about what’s to come. She was an absolute warrior,” Stonham said.
Making matters worse, in 2016 Dobson was also dropped by the Jets.
She said she was angry and felt “it’s all been for nothing” and “I’m not good enough”.
She decided to retire but a matter of months later, Melbourne City called and offered her a spot in the side.
“She was hesitant and I said, you know, ‘I will pack you in a box and send you down there, you have to go play’,” Stonham said. “It’s the biggest club in women’s football in Australia. You have to go.”
Dobson said she loved playing for Melbourne City, winning two championships and a premiership in her time at the club.
But while everything seemed normal once again, in January 2021, routine scans showed the cells in Stonham’s tumour had changed, requiring him to have another brain surgery, with his cancer a stage 3 diagnosis.
It’s a concern because if the cancer returned, it would likely be stage 4, which is “essentially incurable”.
It was then that Dobson decided to retire.
“Matt has supported me through our entire relationship but now it’s time for me to support him,” she said. “It was very clear to me that the fight we had ahead was bigger than my career and I needed to be home. He’s the most important thing in my life.”
The proposal seen around the world
After many years together, Dobson said it was a “running gag” about when Stonham would propose.
“So I proposed to Matt twice in the week leading up to my final game,” Dobson said. “And every time he just laughed at me, and all I could think of was, ‘He’s being a prick’.”
But it was all part of Stonham’s plan.
“I had already started thinking of my own little plan, as it were,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Nah, I’m not going to let you get this one on me’. The last game was a perfect opportunity to do it.”
After his last surgery and treatment and chemotherapy began, Stonham revealed the pair would likely have eight to 10 years before the cancer progressed.
After telling her teammates, it was already an emotional night.
Then Dobson scored, saying: “it felt like this could be no more perfect. I’ve just scored in my final game, we’re winning. Nothing could be better than this”.
Little did she know.
After the game, she found Stonham, and the pair embraced before the moment finally arrived.
“I felt a tap on my shoulder, it was Matt and he said, ‘Hey, Rhali’,” she said. “And I turned around and found him down on one knee with an engagement ring.”