Full-time for the women - What now?
With Season Five of the W-League behind us, and an eight month off-season stretching ahead, there is now plenty of time to reflect on what went right this time round, and even more time to look at ways in which the league can be improved.
The Final: this was a fitting finale for what had been mooted as the best, and most fiercely contested season yet. The supporters were on song, the pitch was perfect and the football was fantastic.
It was an ideal showcase for the standard of women’s football in this country.
To have a team scrape into the finals in the last round of the regular season - then go on to win the title - made for wonderful theatre. To then open a paper the next day, and actually be able to read about it, was the icing on the cake.
The Football: The standard of play this season edged up another notch. The play was pacy and the tackling was tough. Naysayers who dismissed women’s football as slow and uneventful would have been stunned at the technical skill and speed on display.
For those who crave goals, there were plenty. And it wasn’t the same players scoring every round either - unexpected hat-tricks from the likes of Perth youngster Rosie Sutton and New Zealand import Sarah McLaughlin at Adelaide, made sure interest was piqued outside the usual suspects. Importantly, after Megan Rapinoe made such a splash in season four, the bar was raised again on the level of international recruitment.
The Fans: It was particularly heartening to see, and hear, the supporters from the Shed in Perth and the Den in Brisbane at their respective semi-finals, and big wraps to the Blue and White Brigade, as well as the Cove, who created the atmosphere at AAMI Park on Sunday.
Kudos must go to the RBB who set the standard at the Wanderers round 12 match – in the A-League they had already shown themselves as a force to be reckoned with – so, to see them supporting the Wanderers women added to the respect they have earned in their inaugural season.
Room for Improvement
Few things in life are perfect and while women’s football has come a long way, there is still work to be done.
Season length: I doubt I am alone in wanting a complete home and away regular season. Above anything else, it would level the competition and give each team a fair run at the title. I’m fully aware that the main hurdle for female football on a national level is finances, both from an administration and a broadcasting perspective, so let’s add this one to the wish list.
Officiating: We need support for female officials, so that the refereeing keeps pace with the standard of the league. To err is human, but it was frustrating for questionable decisions to be the biggest talking point of the semi-finals.
Injuries: It’s hoped that medical research will definitively pinpoint - sooner, rather than later - the reason for the number of season ending ACL injuries we continue to see in female footballers. It’s gut-wrenching to see the amount of footballing talent hobbling around on the sidelines rather than strutting their stuff on the pitch.
Awareness and attendances: Before departing the country, outgoing national coach, Tom Sermanni expressed the wish that the A-League clubs would see their female counterparts as more of an asset, than a liability.
While the clubs are (with the exception of the Western Sydney Wanderers) run by separate entities, there is surely – with a bit of careful planning – a way to have the two complement and support each other.
Perth Glory, showed a glimmer of what could be done, when they offered free entry to the women’s semi-final match for anyone holding a ticket for the Perth A-League match played the night before.
And, curtain raisers anyone? No, the women are not second-class citizens and should be seen as the main attraction on their match days – but how many players would honestly turn down the opportunity to play on a first-class pitch and show off their skills to a potentially new audience?
It’s not possible to broadcast a match played on the same day, at the same venue, as the A-league, but when ABC broadcast the match of the round, there are still three other fixtures on that weekend.
So what now?
With an Asian Cup to defend (2014) and a World Cup (2015) in the not too distant future for the national side, it’s vital the momentum is not lost.
Plans are currently being made by new Westfield Matildas coach, Hesterine de Reus, for camps, tours and friendlies, but match fitness remains of paramount importance.
The danger in a lengthy off-season, is the lack of elite competition. While a handful may have opportunities overseas, for the rest, the onus will now fall on the state competitions.
With the Westfield W-League comprising such a short part of the calendar, the focus on the elite pathways must not be left to chance.
The game at club level, appears to be continuing, exponentially, the progress made in the last decade, but the performance of the national side in the two upcoming major international tournaments will likely be the fairest indicator of just how robust the health of women’s football really is.