hen the 2019-20 W-League season wrapped up in March, it became the last professional football league in the world to complete a full calendar unaffected by the coronavirus shutdown.
While the grand final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC was played in front of a skeleton crowd of family and friends, the game itself went ahead as planned. By virtue of its short season length, the league managed to slide in under the world’s lockdowns, like Indiana Jones beneath a rapidly descending stone doorway.
But the simile doesn’t end there: Football Federation Australia has proved itself a nimble and adaptable figure internationally, too. Earlier this year, in the space of just two weeks, the organisation negotiated moving the Matildas’ entire Olympic qualifying group from Wuhan to Sydney, including organising stadiums, hotels and training grounds for all four participating national teams. The league responded well to those shifting calendars, moving a handful of games around to ensure all Matildas players would be available for the competition’s scheduled conclusion.
While its neat finish has meant the W-League has been largely out of sight as Australian clubs and administrators have worked to see out the A-League season, the flexibility shown by football’s decision-makers in the women’s space could prove invaluable in the months ahead.
Around the world, in a wearyingly predictable fashion, many women’s clubs and leagues have been significantly warped or sacrificed altogether as their men’s equivalents have steamed towards a restart. Leagues in France, Spain and England have all been cancelled (with Italy likely to follow), while the NWSL in the United States has morphed into the Challenge Cup: a 25-game World Cup-style knockout tournament that will run for just one month.
The question hanging over many of these leagues now is: what happens next? For Europe’s “big five” – France, Spain, England, Italy, and Germany – kick-off for the 2020-21 season is slowly approaching. All five leagues usually begin their seasons in August or September and conclude in May the following year, while the NWSL is traditionally held between April and October. But there is no knowing whether the leagues are still working toward these original dates, just as there’s no knowing whether a second wave of Covid-19 cases across Europe and the US could cause further (and possibly fatal) disruptions to them.
For international players caught up in league and contract insecurity, then, the W-League is becoming a rather enticing proposition. Still far enough in the future that international travel restrictions could be lifted, in a country that is tracking well in terms of new Covid-19 cases (meaning its four-month season could be played out unhindered – perhaps even with crowds), and with the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics just a few months after its conclusion, the W-League is perfectly placed to capitalise on the global uncertainty currently facing the domestic women’s game.
This isn’t the first time Australian women’s football has had to be logistically nimble. Just as the W-League adjusted its calendar in 2014 to account for Australia hosting the 2015 men’s Asian Cup, the competition could shift slightly to reduce the gap between its conclusion and the start of the Olympics, meaning players wouldn’t risk losing match fitness between the two competitions.
In addition, extending the W-League to a full home-and-away season while also adding an extra club – two suggestions that are part of the league’s long-term vision – would provide more game-time for Olympic-bound Matildas as well as more opportunities for international players to prepare themselves for the second-biggest women’s football tournament on the planet.
A temporary expansion of international visa spots could be another way of enticing foreign players desperate for game-time ahead of Tokyo, while more flexible player loan agreements between Australian and international clubs could ensure that international players contracted to clubs in less stable leagues could continue to play football in a competitive, professional environment while their parent leagues get themselves in order.
And as the 2023 Women’s World Cup decision looms, such domestic moves could be perfectly timed to ride the wave of enthusiasm generated if Australia’s joint bid with New Zealand proves successful.
“FFA’s intent remains for the W-League 2020-21 season to return in and around its usual season window,” an FFA spokesperson said. “However, the season window is always assessed and reviewed annually to ensure we can optimise the W-League for players, fans and partners.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted our competition design planning and finalisation timelines for the 2020-21 season and we are not in a position to confirm any further details at the moment. However, we absolutely remain committed to continuing to professionalise, grow and showcase the women’s game in Australia and the W-League remains a key element in that commitment.”
If the W-League can show the same adaptability as it did earlier this year by pouncing upon the current uncertainty facing the domestic game elsewhere, it could set Australian women’s football on a new and potentially more prosperous course.