Questions about the immediate future of the W-League have tended of late to revolve around the Anglosphere. The nature of the league’s informal relationship with the NWSL, and fears of an imminent player exodus to Europe have dominated discussions.
Given that the bulk of the W-League’s international players hail from American shores, and Europe’s recent efforts to boost the women’s game have been bearing fruit, this is unsurprising.
But the discourse also runs the risk of becoming a tad myopic if it doesn’t consider the league’s relationship with its nearest neighbours – fellow Asian Confederation teams and leagues. But with the Young Matildas’ AFC Championship struggles lingering in the memory, the spotlight was trained a little more concertedly on Melbourne Victory’s participation in the first AFC Women’s Club Championship.
How might their foray into international competition be evaluated? If judged on results alone it wasn’t a resounding success, with Victory returning a 4-0 opening day defeat to host country representatives Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels (who’ve won the WK League every year since 2013), a 1-1 draw with China’s 2019 CWSL champions Jiangsu Suning, and finally falling 5-0 to Nippon TV Beleza (who’ve won Japan’s domestic league 17 times in the last 30 years).
Yet these results should be considered with an eye to the practical context in which they occurred. In its pilot form, the AFC was a five-day, three game round-robin tournament, with Melbourne Victory the team which travelled the farthest to attend. The Victory’s opponents played in the competition at the end of their domestic seasons, rather than the very beginning. And the Victory’s heavy defeats came against teams in leagues with notably longer regular seasons. The WK League runs from April to October, with teams playing 28 games; the Nadeshiko League 1 began in March, broke for the World Cup, and concluded at the beginning of November from with each team playing 18 games. The W-League pre-season only officially began in mid-October, with most of the international players not available to join the squad until later in the piece.
There were some positives, of course. Players have spoken about the honour of being the W-League’s first representatives in an AFC international club competition, and Grace Maher’s opener against Jiangsu Suning means the Victory have departed Yongin without the psychological millstone of having no points or goals. It’s something from which to build.
It’s from this base, too, that the W-League’s decision makers need to consider how they reevaluate the league’s place in the women’s professional scene. Amidst the well-documented challenges posed by the United States’ NWSL and European leagues, it would be short-sighted not to also factor in the AFC’s clear appetite to develop the international club football competition further, and whether this gives grounds to reconsider season length and timings as a way of competing.
Things are moving in Asia. A week after news of the Matildas’ new CBA broke, it was announced that Japan will move to a fully professional league in 2021, in a bid to address the widening gulf between the former World Cup holders and the rest of the world. As only Japan and China made the round of 16 at this year’s World Cup, and neither side progressed from there, there’s naturally a heightened awareness in the AFC as to the confederation’s increasingly fragile relationship with international football’s apex. Decisions are quickly being made as to how to navigate the crossroads of women’s football.
The AFC Club Championship recognises the fact club football will be as significant a driver of progress in the women’s game as national teams. National governing bodies are waking to this reality with the start you have when you realised you’ve slept through the alarm and are condemned to be stuck in snail’s pace traffic.
For the immediate future, it is, of course, too early to tell what the week in South Korea will mean for Melbourne Victory’s W-League season now that their international commitments have been met. There must be a sense of relief that the squad came out unscathed. The players’ limited time together in preseason has been more than supplemented by the trip away. New players have been blooded, youngsters given a new stage on which to test themselves and learn. And the conveniently scheduled bye round means the Victory can slip back into the league without having to navigate any further disruption to their season, and focus exclusively on their league campaign.
Melbourne Victory’s participation in the pilot AFC Club Championship undoubtedly represents a milestone for women’s football in Australia. As the following weeks of the W-League unfold, time will tell whether this milestone tournament can become something of a foundation stone for the Victory’s W-League campaign and the W-League’s future direction, or a millstone in the minds of decision makers.