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Why are so many Australians headed for WSL and other European leagues?

Matildas start saying g’day to WSL

Chelsea Women v Aston Villa Women - FA Women’s Continental League Cup: Quarter-Final Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

There was much buzz and excitement when the NWSL announced the introduction of allocation money last year. Not least because most of us were trying to work out the exchange rate between one USD and one Monopoly money NWSL allocation dollar. There was also a tinge of optimism that the money coming into the league would mean not just that non-allocated players would finally start to make some bank but that Sam Kerr might be persuaded to stay in Chicago. Alas, the Matilda was Europe bound but on her way out, the prolific striker seems to have left the door open for her compatriots to follow to WSL.

In moving to England, Kerr joined young compatriot Jacynta Galabadaarachchi (who signed for West Ham at the start of the season) seemed to set off a chainreaction of her fellow Matildas moving to England. First there was the rumour of Caitlin Foord to Arsenal that seemed to draw and drag out until she was officially announced by the time, she was the fourth to have moved over the winter. As well as Foord there was Hayley Raso to Everton on a six month deal - something that left a few scratching their heads, the Blue Girls history over the last few years making the move seem like quite the demotion from the Portland Thorns. And there was also Chloe Logarzo (an attacker who isn’t a stranger to Europe) moving to Bristol City in one of the more confusing January moves.

West Ham United v Lewes Women - FA Women’s Continental League Cup Photo by Arfa Griffiths/West Ham United FC via Getty Images

Although Emily Gielnik, Laura Brock (née Alleway) and Aivi Luik have all had turns in the English league, it was in a time before the enforced professionalism had swept the top tier. In the ensuing years, WSL has fast tried to catch up to the likes of Lyon as both Spain and Italy have dedicated more time and energy to women’s football.

Whilst we’re still a long way off a Premier League/La Liga/Bundesliga type of European dominance to rival the NWSL, as only a select few teams from each league can push the envelope with what they can offer, it does seem like a gradual shift towards the men’s template. Those teams that can offer full-time contracts are conscientious in how they conduct themselves, with many bringing the women’s team in-line with the men’s in terms of giving them free roam of the same training facilities and offering up the additional support staff that is the norm in the men’s game. Whereas not so long ago it would have outlandish to imagine women’s teams having access to sport scientists, psychologists, nutritionists, adapted training plans built around them and everything and in between, now the question is increasingly, “What more can we offer? How best can we facilitate these professional athletes to enable them to reach the top of their game?”

Whilst it’s of no surprise to see Matildas, who had found a groove both in the USA and at home, finally start to ditch the gruelling and endless back and forth of the NWSL-W League-NWS schedule that has run more than one footballer into the ground or ended in serious injury, WSL is maybe the unexpected destination. And it’s certainly true that for Australians, there’s never been a fear to move away from their homes - as can be seen with Luik’s extensive resumé, Tameka Yallop (née Butt) at Klepp, and the hat trick of Matildas at Avaldsnes in 2017.

There are several reasons behind Kerr’s move to Chelsea and it’s not simply about the team that offered her the biggest paycheque, just as Lyon could offer to buy Vivianne Miedema a small island and she’d likely continue to decline their advances. The increased money in NWSL, like the increased amounts that teams in Europe can offer will certainly sway some players (as we have seen with some of the salaries in the Chinese Women’s Super League), but teams will still have to offer more. Maybe it’s a the lure of silverware; not just the domestic title and cup (and league cup in England) but the carrot of Champions League football and more enticingly, Champions League progression for the select few across the continent. Maybe it’s the idea of experiencing a different culture and football style, something to push the individual out of their comfort zone, the competitive nature of the league or just an honest to goodness opportunity for growth.

Maybe, just maybe, WSL is no longer part of the journey, but for those all over the world, it’s becoming the destination.