Four years ago Australia enjoyed a breakthrough showing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time. Incredibly, this landmark achievement was accomplished without a national league in place. Most of the players preparing with training matches in their respective home cities, invariably against U-15 boys teams, with only intermittent internationals as a means of competition.
Fast forward to 2011 and the landscape has changed significantly. Australia’s national women’s competition, the W-League, has just completed a third successful season and national coach Tom Sermanni is hoping his Matildas side will be the major beneficiaries at Germany 2011.
Australia face a tough ask if they are to repeat their heroics of China 2007 having been grouped with 2007 runners-up Brazil, 1995 champions Norway, plus African newcomers Equatorial Guinea. Much like the Socceroos when they visited Germany in the memorable summer of 2006, the Matildas are hoping to leave their own indelible mark.
*Changing of the guard
*The team have lost a host of vastly experienced players during the last four years with Joanne Peters, Dianne Alagich, Alicia Ferguson and the legendary Cheryl Salisbury among a number of notables hanging up their boots and taking around a dozen FIFA Women’s World Cups worth of experience with them. The conversion from old to new proved painful with Australia suffering a record 5-1 home defeat against Italy in early 2009.
“Two years ago I was really concerned about the next generation coming through,” said Sermanni, a coaching veteran of Australia’s appearances at both the 1995 and 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cups. “The national team at that stage was in major transition and we needed to make significant changes. There really wasn’t the pool of players ready to make the step-up and it was difficult to see where those changes were going to come from.”
The W-League commenced in late 2008, four years on from the last national competition concluding, and it proved a godsend for both the national coach and the local game. “The W-League has been beneficial in many ways,” says Sermanni. “The W-League has opened up an avenue for players to develop who were on the fringes of the national team. Be that players out of the national squad or players we had never really seen before."
Clubs competing in the seven-team league are aligned with their respective local A-League side helping to add extra profile and credibility. Six major Australian cities are represented, joined by a team from the nation’s capital, Canberra United. While competition has been fierce Brisbane Roar and Sydney FC have dominated in terms of silverware with the pair playing out a high-quality final last Saturday, before the former triumphed with one of the hero’s of China ’07, Lisa De Vanna, bagging the winner. The quality of the match reflected in the fact that 16 of the 20 outfield players had international experience.
Quality too has come with a growing number of international players enjoying a summer Down Under. Perth Glory fielded Swedish defender Alexandra Nilsson and Danish goalkeeper Tine Cederkvist, while a number of USA players with WPS experience also featured including Kendall Fletcher, Lydia Vandenbergh and Allison Lipsher.
“The level of competition and seriousness had risen and with that has seen a rise in performance,” Sermanni said. “The teams have improved their preparation, their recruitment, their organisation and all that has combined to make for a better standard which I think has taken a step-up this year. There has been a significant jump (in performance) this season."
All of which provides the Matildas mentor with a pleasant headache as he looks to whittle a greatly increased pool of players down to 21 for Germany. Last year Australia were crowned queens of Asia for the first time thanks to a significant contribution from youngsters who have cut their teeth in the W-League; Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon and Elise Kellond-Knight among them.
“Some key players have really stepped up and shown both their quality and class this season and I don’t think that happened to the same degree even in the first two seasons of the league,” Sermanni said. “Now there is a bigger group of players than ever before putting their hand up for selection and that is down to the W-League.”