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What to know about Australian football ahead of the World Cup

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The moment is almost at hand, the Women’s World Cup is almost here and those making the pilgrimage Down Under to watch are landing in increasing numbers. And if you’re one of those headed to Oz for the tournament, or just looking to stand out in the group chat, then ESPN has you covered with a guide to football across Australia, with a bit of New Zealand thrown in as well.

A very brief history of women’s football in Australia

Reports exist surrounding the formation of “ladies” teams in New South Wales as far back as 1903 but the first public match of football between women’s teams that has been confirmed took place in Brisbane in 1921, when a North Brisbane XI defeated a South Brisbane XI 2-0 at what is now known as the Gabba in front of over 10,000 people. Australia’s first formally formed women’s team, the LaTrobe Ladies, was founded shortly thereafter, while reports existed of games taking place in New Zealand at the same time. Both countries being a part of the British Empire, however, the 1921 move by the English Football Association effectively denied women the ability to play organised football for half a century — strangling any sense of nascent momentum.

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Come the 1970s, however, change was afoot. In August 1974, the first National Women’s Soccer Championships were held in Sydney, featuring sides from across NSW, Victoria, West Australia, and Queensland. Meetings across that week led to the creation of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA) and a year later an Australian team took part in an unofficial Asian Women’s Championships.

The first side officially recognised by Football Australia took the field in 1978 at a World Women’s Invitational Tournament, playing a series of “B” internationals against club sides, before playing their first official international the following year against New Zealand at Seymour Shaw Park in Sydney, with the game finishing as a 2-2 draw.

Australia was then one of 12 nations that took part in a 1988 FIFA Women’s Invitational tournament — an experimental precursor to the first official Women’s World Cup — but they subsequently missed out on a place in the first official Women’s World Cup proper when they lost out on goal difference to New Zealand in the Oceania Cup. Australia would subsequently get the better of New Zealand in the 1995 Oceania Cup — its first piece of continental silverware — to qualify for the 1995 Women’s World Cup and kickstart a run wherein they have qualified for every iteration since.

What is Australia’s top women’s league?

The Australian and New Zealand women’s top flights are one and the same: the A-Leagues counting teams from Australia and the Kiwi-based Wellington Phoenix among their number. Operating without a system of promotion and relegation, similar to the American MLS and NWSL, franchises in the A-Leagues operate under a one-club model wherein they field both men’s and women’s teams in the A-League Men and A-League Women competitions respectively.

The first ALW season took place in 2008-09 under the stewardship of the then Football Federation Australia (now Football Australia), featuring eight teams playing a 10-round season and filling the gap left when the Women’s National Soccer League collapsed alongside its male counterpart in 2004.

After many years of bitter fighting between various stakeholders about the future of the league, current A-Leagues operators — the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) — took control of the competitions in 2021.

There was a difficult start to life in charge of the APL, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic putting a significant strain on the league and its finances. Things then started promisingly enough in 2022-23, only for tensions between administrators and supporters to come to a boiling point over a sudden, surprise move to break with a tradition of awarding hosting rights to the leagues’ Grand Finals on sporting merit and instead sell them to NSW tourism agency Destination NSW for three seasons. Discontent over visibility, working conditions, scheduling, and fan engagement are also issues that continue to linger.

Nonetheless, while there remains a trust deficit between the league and its core supporters, the APL has made a significant contribution to women’s football since it assumed control. After admitting Western United in 2022-23, the Central Coast Mariners’ entrance in 2023-24 will see the ALW expand to 12 teams and, in a first for any of Australia’s major “footballing” sports (Rugby Union, Rugby League, Australian Rules and Soccer) compete in a full home and away season.

In addition, the APL is moving to 14 clubs in the coming years, as well as planning to double the number of NZ-based sides in the competition — Auckland named alongside Canberra (which will absorb the place of lone standalone ALW side Canberra United) as a targeted expansion city for the 2024-25 season.

For the most part, players in the ALW still need secondary incomes to supplement their football and many still play in their local National Premier League Women (NPLW) competitions in the off-season but, thanks to a five-year CBA negotiated between the league and player’s union Professional Footballers Australia, the minimum wage for an ALW player increased from AU$16,344 to AU$20,608 for the 2022-23 season and will grow in line with the expansion of the leagues to AU$25,000 in 2023-24. Full-time professionalism stands as the next frontier for the league.

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Who should I know from the A-League Women?

Sydney FC is the most successful ALW side in the history of the competition and secured a Premiership-Championship double during the most recent season: defeating Western United 4-0 at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium. Speedster Cortnee Vine started that game for the Sky Blues and is also expected to start for Tony Gustavsson’s Matildas at the WWC.

Winning the Julie Dolan Medal as the league’s best player for her work with Melbourne Victory while on loan from Racing Louisville, Alex Chidiac also forced her way into the Matildas’ WWC squad off the back of her ALW play, as did Western Sydney Wanderers defender Clare Hunt, who started alongside Alanna Kennedy in Australia’s final warm-up game against France last Friday. Midfield lynchpin Katrina Gorry also spent time with Brisbane Roar before cutting her season short to return to Swedish side Vittsjo GIK.

Every member of the Matildas WWC squad at one point or another in their development played in the ALW — as you’d expect from a relatively advanced football nation’s premier domestic league — but ever since the end of its 2019-20 season, when Steph Catley led Melbourne City to a title, it’s become more a proving ground for future Matildas.

In the past, Matildas and star internationals would often take advantage of the consecutive nature of the two leagues’ seasons to split their time between the American NWSL and ALW, providing plenty of star power and quality to the league. City’s 2020 crown, for example, featured seven Matildas, Kiwi international Rebekah Stott, Japan representative Yukari Kinga, and Scotland star Claire Emslie in their starting XI.

Now, however, the rise of the well-resourced and fully professional European leagues has seen much of that talent, particularly senior Matildas, make their way to the continent and the increasing length of the ALW season will increasingly clash with the schedules of NWSL clubs.

This, combined with expansion creating multiple rosters worth of new positions to fill, has seen the age profile of the ALW dramatically fall in recent years, as well as hint at a shift in the type of international players who may be seeking a move Down Under; Western United imports Hillary Beall and Sydney Cummings arrived in the ALW as fringe NWSL types, only to log standout seasons and boost their stocks.

What else is going on in Australian football?

The A-Leagues are played in the Southern Hemisphere summer, which aligns them with Europe’s major leagues and ensures they haven’t needed to be suspended for the duration of the WWC.

However, the winter-staged, semi-professional and amateur NPL and state league competitions around the country will continue while the WWC comes to town — their community-backed nature and issues with ground and player availability should they push too far into summer making pausing unviable.

In addition, the Australia Cup, a nationwide men’s knockout competition akin to England’s FA Cup, will play two ALM-based playoff fixtures and its Round of 32 in the coming weeks. Football Australia floated a women’s Australia Cup being planned for 2024 to much fanfare in March, however the recent release of next year’s domestic match calendar by the federation featured no mention of the competition.

Speaking to ESPN, Football Australia CEO James Johnson has said that the ongoing nature of these competitions would add another layer of football available to fans already engaged by WWC proceedings, helping to capitalise on all eyes turning to the world game in the coming month. He also clarified that while the sheer scale involved had made things difficult, Football Australia had worked with state-based member federations, which control their local NPLs and state leagues, to try to avoid clashes with local WWC games, especially those involving the Matildas.

What else is going on in major Australian sports?

Whereas the A-Leagues might be in hibernation, the country’s two biggest sporting competitions — the AFL and NRL — are right in the middle of their seasons and will remain in play throughout the WWC.

For the NRL, which also plays on a rectangular field and features several sides whose home grounds are being used as WWC venues or training bases, this has forced the relocation of several team’s games during the tournament to interstate, regional, and non-traditional grounds for the duration of the tournament.

The AFL, however, playing on oval venues, has not lost any of its stadia or training venues to the Women’s World Cup and will play throughout the tournament without adjustment.

In Europe, Australia’s women’s cricket team will be wrapping up their Ashes series with England as the Women’s World Cup gets underway, but the men will play Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval over the duration of the tournament.

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