2020 has been one of the most challenging and transformative years in the long history of Australian women’s football.
Like all other areas of our lives, COVID-19 has forced the sport to reckon with its own fragile existence; to reflect upon where it has come from and to reconsider, perhaps, where it wants to go from here.
The women’s game in Australia was one of the first sports to respond to the pandemic.
From the Matildas’ hastily-rescheduled Olympic qualifiers in February to the W-League’s behind-closed-doors grand final in March, it foreshadowed the bubbles and empty grandstands and social distancing rules that have become the new normal in world sport.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only global event that has dramatically altered the women’s football landscape in Australia.
The rise of Europe on the women’s club stage has resulted in a number of senior Matildas such as Sam Kerr, Ellie Carpenter, Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams opting for the longer seasons, higher wages and cooler months of the European leagues.
In addition, July saw Australia and New Zealand win the rights to jointly host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, one of Australia’s most significant sporting events, of huge financial and logistical proportions, since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
This tournament presents Australia with its greatest chance at not just winning a World Cup, but to also catapult football — which many believe has yet to reach its full potential — into the Australian mainstream.
So what role will the W-League play in this new era for the women’s game, and for the Australian game more widely?
W-League to unearth ‘exceptional talent’
While the Matildas’ European exodus initially caused doubts among W-League fans about the 2020/21 season, the vacuum created by the loss of senior players has turned into a golden opportunity for the next generation of Australian footballers.
This, according to Matildas assistant coach Melissa Andreatta, is the most exciting aspect of the upcoming season.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting season, like we saw between 2009 and 2011 when a lot of those senior players — Kate McShea, Joey Peters, Cheryl Salisbury — all left the league, and the youngsters — the Sam Kerrs, Caitlin Foords, Kyah Simons — all stepped up,” she said.
“I think what happened then is what we’ll see now.
“There’ll be an exceptional talent that we’ll be talking about in generations to come, too.”
Senior players stress need for growth within women’s football
But this W-League season isn’t completely devoid of senior Matildas.
Brisbane Roar winger Emily Gielnik is one of several senior players who have returned to the domestic competition after spending time in Europe; many of them looking to maintain their fitness and impress incoming head coach, Tony Gustavsson, who starts his new role in January.
“Obviously it’s devastating that we’re missing a lot of the national team players,” Gielnik said.
“But for me personally, with the standards I have and knowing the level I need to be playing at in order to keep myself in the national team, that motivates me enough to be at the top of my game for the entirety of the season.
“I want to give the league some backing here. I think that the league is strong. We’ve got some national team players in the Roar (including Tameka Yallop, Katrina Gorry and Clare Polkinghorne), so I know the level will be quite high at training and hopefully we can bring that into the games and force those high standards within the W-League and keep them high this season.
Younger players looking to make their mark
One of those emerging players is Sydney FC striker, Remy Siemsen.
After making her W-League debut as a 16-year-old, Siemsen scored six goals and went on to win the competition’s Young Footballer of the Year award.
Last season, at the age of 20, she was the joint Golden Boot winner with seven goals.
Siemsen is one of the young players looking to make her mark on the W-League this season in the absence of the big international names.
“I’m really excited,” Siemsen told ABC Sport.
“It’ll be a really good season to show off the local, domestic talent in this country and it’ll give us an opportunity, especially leading into the 2023 Women’s World Cup, to get some exposure at the top level and try to prove ourselves.
“This will be our highlights reel; great exposure for the national team. You see the players that have come through the W-League — you see where they are today — and I think this will be the same.
“It’ll allow us to show Tony Gustavsson the talent we have and hopefully some opportunities will present themselves if some girls have good seasons here.”
Development isn’t a dirty word
The W-League, then, finds itself in a fork in the road.
While it doesn’t have the money or the resources of Europe or the United States, Australia still occupies an important place in the global women’s football landscape.
As this year’s exodus of Matildas shows, the league has been responsible for discovering and developing some of the world’s best players — and this is where the future of the league likely lies.
Indeed, ‘development’ is not a dirty word; it is the word that most accurately describes where Australia fits into the wider football ecosystem by taking all its tangled financial and cultural factors into account.
It may take some time for this new identity to emerge, but as the last decade has shown, development has always been at the heart of the W-League — that’s how some of Australia’s most-adored athletes became who they are today.
So, while it feels like the end of an era, the 2020/21 season is the beginning of the next: where the league fully embraces its developmental roots and sets up its newest stage, ready for a whole new generation of stars to walk out from the darkness of the wings, finally given their moment in the spotlight.
Samantha Lewis is a freelance women’s football writer who has been published in The Guardian, ESPN, Optus Sport and SBS — The World Game.