W-League needs firmer foundations to plug the talent drain to Europe | W-League

The first thing that stuck out about Melbourne City’s W-League opener against Brisbane Roar was Teagan Micah’s superb performance in goal. The second was the stark difference between the defending champions’ starting XI in this match and the one that won last season’s grand final.

A host of Matildas helped City seal the double in March’s 1-0 decider against Sydney FC. In last week’s goalless draw with the Roar, six were absent. Steph Catley (Arsenal), Lydia Williams (Arsenal), Kyah Simon (PSV), Ellie Carpenter (Olympique Lyonnais), Aivi Luik (Sevilla) and Emily van Egmond (West Ham) have all taken their services abroad. Add Japan’s Yukari Kinga (Orca Kamogawa) and that is seven internationals.

There is nothing particularly surprising about this – the high-profile departures have been extensive in the 18 months since the 2019 World Cup made Europe the place to be. The more concerning nature of the Sam Kerr-led exodus is that Australia has developed a generation of talent and then lost much of it for little or no compensation.

Yes, the women’s game is still comparatively young and its transfer market therefore lacks the absurd inflation apparent in the men’s game. Other contributors, though, are more complex. The sheer volume of short-term contracts means effectively the entire league’s players become free agents at the end of every season, vis-a-vis Western Sydney’s retention of only one of their regular starting XI – Courtney Nevin – from a strong 2019-20.

“The problem with implementing a domestic transfer system; in the A-League you have 60% of players come off contract after this season and 100% in the W-League, coupled with amateur National Premier League competitions,” says the Professional Footballers Australia co-chief executive Kate Gill. “Our priority needs to be professionalising our competitions.

Caitlin Foord
Sydney FC received a transfer fee when Caitlin Foord went to Arsenal. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

“The 2023 World Cup is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the women’s game. We can’t miss this moment, we need to keep building out the W-League to a 12-month competition. If we can offer players close to the same remuneration [offered by big European clubs], have a 12-month calendar of football, alongside a strong CBA, mandating high-performance support and resources, the W-League would become the competition of choice for the world’s best players.”

Until last year, the US National Women’s Soccer League did not allow for inbound loans from clubs in other leagues. This included the W-League, and is a major reason so many Australians were contracted to NWSL clubs for multiple seasons, loaned out to W-League sides during the US off-season and then recalled in time for the restart.

This changed in 2018-19 after dialogue between US and Australian counterparts, making it more realistic for W-League sides to sign Australians on multi-year deals. It is why Sydney FC received a rare transfer fee for the on-contract Matildas Caitlin Foord (Arsenal) and Chloe Logarzo (Bristol City), understood to be in the region of $40,000 and $15,000 respectively.

Those figures are nowhere near proportionate to the on-field contributions of two regular internationals in a world No 7 team, especially considering Chelsea recently signed the Denmark international Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg for a world-record transfer fee of more than $500,000 (£300,000).

Of course, this has not solved the calendar problem created by the W-League’s direct clash with Europe’s big leagues and the latter’s offer of year-round payment, foregoing the necessity for players to supplement wages elsewhere.

Michelle Heyman
Michelle Heyman is in fine form for Canberra United. Photograph: Mike Owen/Getty Images

Sydney FC’s chief executive, Danny Townsend, who is also commercial lead of the newly formed Australian Professional Leagues, says expanding and introducing a full home-and-away season were priorities.

“The big challenge is to commit to a competition structure and calendar,” Townsend says. “Without that certainty it is hard to contract players on multi-year deals. We need to put ourselves in the position where we determine what the optimum schedule and calendar is for the W-League – and stick to it.”

Before this campaign kicked off, the City coach, Rado Vidosic, said the W-League must become fully professional. “I think we need to bite the bullet, and need to go full time,” Vidosic said. “Because the only way for these players to improve is to be full-time in a professional environment.”

Despite these issues, the league is not without talent. City’s roster includes Alex Chidiac, who has returned to Australia from Atlético Madrid, Emma Checker, who has stayed put, and Jenna McCormick, who is back from Real Betis and scored in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Canberra United.

That is before mentioning Micah, the Matildas’ third-choice goalkeeper who has so far replaced Williams – the national team’s first choice – with aplomb via some truly arresting saves.

Canberra’s Michelle Heyman is looking fresh and Nicki Flannery added to her teammate’s opener with a match-winning stoppage-time pearler from distance.

The Roar boasts Matildas quartet Tameka Yallop, Emily Gielnik, Clare Polkinghorne and Katrina Gorry, and Melbourne Victory have Lisa De Vanna and Young Matilda Kyra Cooney-Cross. The Sky Blues have kept last season’s joint golden boot winner Remy Siemsen and Princess Ibini scored twice in last week’s emphatic 3-0 win over the Wanderers.

A new generation is stepping into the void, gaining valuable match minutes under the gaze of the new Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson. These future national team players are buffeted by strong training environments, medical expertise and other structural support mechanisms. The key, once they make it, will be to ensure they are not lost for free.

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