In the eight months since Melbourne City hoisted the W-League Championship trophy to close out last season, Australian football – and particularly the women's game – has changed in profound ways.
COVID-19 isn’t the only global event that has forced football to reckon with its own existence. The acceleration of women’s football in Europe and winning the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup have held a mirror up to the Australian game, inviting us to reflect upon what we are and re-imagine what we could be.
And with today’s release of the 2020/21 fixtures for both the W-League and the A-League, fans across Australia are receiving their first glimpse of this newly-imagined future – one in which the men’s and women’s games are being drawn closer together.
For the first time ever, both leagues will kick off on the same day and run parallel to each other for their duration; the first structural sign of the leagues’ new “one club” philosophy and a symbol of the more equitable direction in which the Australian game is heading.
That will be clear from the opening whistle of the 2020/21 season, which will ring around the terraces of Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta – the same place where the Matildas made history just over a year ago by attracting the highest attendance for a women’s international football match in Australia – as Western Sydney Wanderers, whose men's and women's sides share the same resources and facilities, kick off the leagues' new era.
While some of those familiar Matildas faces won’t be returning this season, the exporting of our top talent to the world’s biggest clubs is a testament to the strength of the W-League as a platform where the stars of tomorrow can and will be found.
We could see some of them emerge as early as the Round 1, which will feature the first of several double-headers as Sydney FC host Melbourne City in a Grand Final replay: two clubs that have moved the dial at various points in the W-League’s 12 seasons, and will continue to do so as they present us with a cast of new, young, and vibrant characters who will finally take centre-stage after waiting in the wings for so long.
It’s fitting, then, that the 2020/21 season begins on the cusp of a new year: a time in which we all resolve to look ahead and make changes for the better. This is a moment of renewal and possibility for Australia’s professional game as the leagues’ “unbundled” chapter begins, with the W-League becoming one of the only women’s leagues in the world to be independently operated, giving it an unprecedented opportunity to maximise its strengths and flourish in its own unique ways.
And while the season kicks off later than usual, there’s a sense of another kind of alignment taking place: the late-December start and multiple mid-week games means grassroots, NPL and the professional leagues will begin to overlap, gesturing towards the traditional football structures we’ve come to know and love elsewhere and bringing all levels of the pyramid closer together.
These are the first steps in a longer-term journey for Australian football, one sign-posted by the Women’s World Cup but not limited to it. What we’re seeing this season is the shifting of deeper foundations; the laying down of new bricks and mortar upon which the game’s new house will be built. That process takes time, and it asks us for patience and commitment in place of snap judgements and easy distractions.
In a world still grappling with COVID, the fact that the game is returning at all is something to celebrate. This is a season – and a year – of transition for many of us; a moment to recognise where we’ve come from and decide where we want to go. So as 2020 draws to a close and we begin to jot down our New Year’s Resolutions, the season ahead presents us all with an opportunity to imagine that bigger, brighter future; a future that the Australian game could, finally, live up to.