The Australian W-League completed its inaugural season last weekend with a high-quality match played in front of a crowd of nearly 5,000, a record for a domestic women's match.
The debut campaign's showpiece event represented a fitting climax to a season that witnessed eight teams from across Australia doing battle across ten competitive rounds of fixtures. After four years without national competition, the establishment of the W-League has been a key component in the development pathway for female players in Australia, and the new league has proved a resounding success.
With the exception of Canberra United, the teams were aligned to their respective local A-League club, allowing for the sharing of infrastructure, branding, and of course, supporters. Women's football in Australia has boomed in recent years, partly on the back of Australia's success in reaching the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. Indeed, participation figures have soared to such an extent that it is considered the nation's fastest-growing sport.
Interest in the W-League was boosted by the fact that one match each round was broadcast live on national free-to-air television in front of healthy crowds for the fledgling competition. Remarkably, the first game broadcast even out-rated the A-League's pay-tv coverage for that weekend.
Roar rule the roost
With a dozen national team players in their ranks, it was no surprise that Queensland Roar emerged as the first-ever W-League champions. Long known as a strong women's football state, Queensland raced to the premiership in impressive fashion under the watchful eye of coach Jeff Hopkins, a former Wales international.
The Roar lost just one match in the regular season but they stumbled in the rarefied atmosphere of the four-team play-off finals, narrowly scraping past Sydney FC in the semi-final by virtue of a penalty shoot-out. The favourites recovered in the grand final, however, and two unanswered goals saw off the challenge of a Canberra United side that had inflicted the Roar's only defeat earlier in the season.
Newcastle Jets, whose team included inspirational Matildas skipper Cheryl Salisbury and was boosted by the mid-season arrival of international imports in New Zealand's Rebecca Smith and Sweden's Sanna Frostevall, were the other semi-finalists. Also experiencing an Australian summer were a number of other players with international experience in the form of Canadians Brittany Timko and Leah Robinson, plus more New Zealanders in Rebecca Tegg and Marlies Oostdam. The quality and competitiveness of the league combined with its favourable timing is likely to see further international guests boost its profile still further for next season.
Conversely, the league allows Australian players to compete overseas notably in Scandanavia, which has long been a regular haunt for Aussie female players, but also to the United States and the new Women's Professional Soccer League. Australian stars from China 2007 such as Lisa De Vanna, Heather Garriock, Collette McCallum and Sarah Walsh are already signed to the US league for its upcoming debut season.
Green and gold success
That the Australian team's success in China was achieved without a national league was a remarkable accomplishment, and stood as testament to the work of coach Tom Sermanni and his players.
Unsurprisingly, Sermanni believes the W-League will make it easier for the Matildas to compete at the highest level. He said: "I have to say the league has been a wonderful success on many levels, from the intensity of each and every match to the quality of performance from all teams at various stages. The league has provided a platform for players to compete against their peers in a week-in, week-out professional environment.
"The younger players especially have benefited, a number of whom have already put their hand up for national selection, meaning a headache for the national coach, albeit a good headache! The league has obviously been a benefit for the Matildas, but it will also benefit our youth national teams, and we need as much assistance as possible to compete in the Asian and international women's football arena, which is rapidly improving."