When even the launch of a new kit sparks a wave of controversy, you know it's been a spicy week in Australian football. Thus, it's a perfect time to take stock of the landscape with another Australian football wrap.
When I Come Around
Consistently ranked among the nation's most beloved sporting teams, the Matildas and Socceroos are a rare breed in Australian football: an almost universally unifying force in an otherwise rancorous code. When the pair step onto the world stage, the country -- not just football fans -- rise as one around them and, if one were to lower their guard for a split second at the heights of these moments of collective euphoria, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the time when momentum would carry over to the domestic scene and awaken the "sleeping giant" that is Australian football.
After a long, COVID-19-enforced layoff, both the 'Roos and 'Tillies are expected back in action for camps in November, and the announcement of a coach for the latter is expected within weeks (more on that later). Speaking exclusively to ESPN, Football Federation Australia CEO James Johnson said he had high hopes for Australia's national sides in the coming years.
"I'm excited about [the] 2023 [Women's World Cup]," Johnson told ESPN. "We're going to bring the global community to our shores -- our local people are going to see one of the world's greatest sporting events on home soil.
"I'm very excited about our Matildas team and how they're going to compete at the Olympics next year, in India in 2022 [at the Asian Cup], and then on home soil when our key players will be at their peak. I'm excited about our Matildas coach and that appointment that will be made shortly. I'm excited to see our Socceroos resume in November. I'm excited to see for the first time since Athens 2004 our Olyroos and Matildas compete [at an Olympics].
"I'm excited to see our grassroots numbers increase again next year as we've seen year in and year out and I'm excited to see, hopefully, the connection between our grassroots, our national teams and our professional game is more connected -- I think that's a great opportunity."
Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren, who scored four goals in four World Cup qualifiers at the beginning of a 2019-20 campaign that also saw him crowned as the A-League's Golden Boot winner, is similarly enthused.
"I think the next period, the whole qualifying for the Qatar World Cup, is an exciting period," Maclaren told ESPN. "I think there's going to be a lot of games, more than we expected to be due to not being able to play [due to COVID-19]. "It's an exciting time to be a Socceroo and I think there's a lot of games to really look forward to.
"All the boys have different leagues to play in, but when we're together we're a tight group and I believe when there's a fresh face they're welcomed into the group within minutes. That's what Australians do, we're all in this together and I believe that this group, who is young and vibrant, will do great things."
Little Boy Named Train
Maclaren spoke to ESPN as part of celebrations for the launch of new Socceroos and Matildas kits, which feature a return to the classically styled green and gold home kit and the much-demanded reintroduction of green shorts. While excitement surrounding the launch briefly threatened to be overtaken by the furore over a lack of away kits in a women's cut, common sense has now prevailed on that front.
Materialistic as it might be to use the launch of a new wardrobe as marker for some form of turning point, the attacker says that there is some merit to the phrase "new look, new me" after a trying 2020.
"People don't realise, it gives players a lift because it's a fresh change, a new look. Whether it's the smaller things like a new tracksuit or training kit, it just gives us a vibrant feel that we're onto a new chapter now and that's something we want to carry on."
But with the number of potential games on the horizon for the Socceroos, it's highly unlikely that kits will be the only additions to their ranks in the coming year -- a need existing to develop a talent pool able to weather the onslaught of games vital for coach Graham Arnold. For Maclaren, there were two names that stood out to him when asked who he thought would emerge as a difference-maker in the Socceroos' coming slate -- the first of whom he got quite a close look at during the recently completed A-League season.
"I think there's a few that have grabbed the bull by the horns," he said. "Someone like Max Burgess at Western United. I didn't know much about him but having watched him this season he's really turned on the switch. I think it comes down to having the belief. Rudes [Western coach Mark Rudan] believes in Maxy Burgess and he's got the quality, got that X factor.
"It's also nice seeing Daniel Arzani get back to full fitness as well because he's also got that X factor."
As first reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, sources have told ESPN that Caroline Morace is shaping as a front-runner for the vacant Matildas coaching position, with the Perth-based Italian having already interviewed multiple times for the role. News Limited has reported that Chelsea women's boss Emma Hayes is also among the contenders.
The appointment of Morace would be in keeping with one of the key goals of the FFA's selection panel, which ESPN understands was the appointment of an individual with previous international experience. A veteran of 150 appearances for the Italian national side during her two-decade-long playing career, the Venetian is a former boss of the Italian, Canadian, and Trinidad and Tobago national sides, and most recently served as the boss of Milan's women.
She's a Rebel
Whoever does take up the challenge of taking over a Matildas group christened as the "platinum generation" by CEO Johnson, they will need to quickly form a working relationship with under-17 Junior Matildas boss Rae Dower, who extended her contract to 2022 on Wednesday while simultaneously assuming the role of women's technical advisor.
"It's a truly exciting time to be involved in women's football in Australia and globally, with rapid growth in many areas of the sport currently being witnessed. Young girls and women have never had a better opportunity to develop a career in football, but there is much more that can be done to ensure our best young talents have every chance possible to progress from their grassroots club to the W-League and Matildas," Dower said.
Speaking to ESPN, interim national technical director Trevor Morgan reiterated the need to adjust pathways as the women's game developed.
"If I think back to the first Matilda I knew, which was Kelly Golebiowski, she played for the Matildas at 14," Morgan said. "But this year, the girls are transitioning to a greater chance of an exceptional career so I think what's going to happen is that a lot of young girls were reaching the Matildas early in their career 10 years ago. Now the game is more professional, the senior women have great support around them and reach a much higher level on a weekly basis in their club football. It's going to take a little bit longer for the young girls to come through to that level because they've got to mature."
Morgan also said Dower is perfectly placed to shape the federation's approach in meeting these new needs.
"[There's] community connection, finding new talent coming in and looking deep as you can," Morgan said. "Rae's role requires that -- digging to the bottom. She has access to Junior Matildas, Young Matildas and Matildas-level training, and she's been a W-League coach."
The task ahead of Dower and her team is a vital one, with Australia needing to ensure it capitalises on the surging interest in women's football and inspirational power of the current generation of Matildas to lay a foundation for sustained developmental excellence and empowerment.
Welcome to Paradise
To run one's eyes over the Melbourne City XI that triumphed over Sydney FC in March's W-League Grand Final is to engage in a staggering exercise in attrition. Of the 11 players who took the field on that Saturday afternoon at AAMI Park, eight have since moved onto European clubs and and a ninth, American Lauren Barnes, is also unlikely to return -- the defender informing the club that she too wishes to explore a move to the continent.
"We're proud to have so many players playing in Europe," City director of football Michael Petrillo told ESPN. "Not just in Europe, but at some of the biggest clubs in Europe. We couldn't be prouder and if we can keep producing players that eventually go on and do that, that's great.
"Over the last couple of years have tried to bring in some younger girls that we think are in that elite category that will one day not only become Melbourne City players but, hopefully, Manchester City. We want that to be the pathway eventually."
But while City have attracted a number of promising young players in recent years -- Chelsea Blissett, Sofia Sakalis, Maja Markovski and Nia Stamatopoulos among them -- the challenges of filling the ranks of a squad that perennially has served as the W-League's Death Star since it first entered the league in 2015 will prove a challenge. City success in years past has been built on bringing the best talent that Australia has to offer, with Matildas -- attracted by the league-leading facilities and resourcing -- flocking their droves to Bundoora. However, these successes and bountiful resources are yet to correlate with development of a batch of home-grown Matildas.
Was attempting to write a piece for @Beyond90AU about the return of the #WLeague and what the Matildas exodus to Europe would mean but scrapped it 1600 words in because it's too soon and we don't know enough. Instead enjoy some of the random stats I was weaving in 👉🏻— Teo Pellizzeri (@teopellizzeri) May 3, 2020
And now, with Matildas almost entirely engaged elsewhere, how can that success continue?
"We're approaching it in the same way that we've approached every other season," Petrillo said. "Our aim is to make sure we're the best women's program in Australia.
"That means we want to attract the very best players we can and we're on track to do that again. The talent pool we can draw from in Australia has been diluted because of the numbers that have gone to Europe, but we believe that we're going to put together the strongest squad in the W-League again.
"We may be a little bit younger, or less experienced in terms of Matildas, but we'll think we'll attract the best possible players to us in Australia. I think it's easier for us than a lot of other clubs because it's well known we have the best program and with the staff and resources thrown at it.
"We think [the season] is going to be a little bit delayed - probably around the end of November or even into December. We can't leave it too long because otherwise, we'll overlap with the US leagues, so we don't want to do that. But we haven't had final confirmation."
Are We the Waiting
By now, the battle lines drawn between the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA) and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) over a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) are well known: clubs advocating for steep cuts in the face of a COVID-19-enforced downturn while players seek to mitigate -- but not avoid -- reductions.
This conflict escalated on Tuesday when Perth Glory, as earmarked in a letter to fans by owner Tony Sage on Sunday, stood down their playing group and placed those eligible on Jobkeeper. Club CEO Tony Pignata then told ESPN on Wednesday that "clubs are pretty adamant that we'll be pushing ahead without a CBA and we'll be individualising each contract with the player."
The PFA immediately moved to classify the stand-downs as a lockout and flagged court action on behalf of the Glory playing group. Sage, Pignata and APFCA legal counsel Greg Griffin have stated they believe Glory is safe from any legal jeopardy.
The usage of lockout terminology is a small but important feature of the PFA's statement. Possibly indicating how the next phase of the public-relations war between clubs and players might play out, a lockout differs from a strike in that the former is imposed by management or owners while the latter is instigated by the employees or players.
Though not a common feature of Australian sports, a lockout instigated in the face of disagreements over the presence of a salary cap resulted in the entire 2004-05 NHL season being cancelled, the first time since 1919 that the Stanley Cup had not been awarded. That episode eventually led to a CBA that ended in 2012, promptly leading to more labour chaos and another lockout ... groan.
The moves to lock young talent up on (relatively) long-term deals -- Tilio and Gomulka inked three-year pacts and Sutton a two-year agreement -- represent shrewd moves by the A-League's runners-up. Already possessing high-potential attackers Stefan Colakovski, Ramy Najjarine, Connor Metcalfe, Tom Glover and Idrus Abdulahi, they have the potential to run out a young, and valuable, side in the years ahead.
It's a group bolstered by the return of 21-year-old Nathaniel Atkinson, whose deal with Perth Glory, as well as that of Andrew Nabbout, was terminated by mutual consent due to challenges associated with relocating to Western Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. ESPN had also been told that Nabbout, unlikely to return to Victory and having a young family living in Melbourne, could also be on his way to Bundoora -- although any such move would be in a very nascent stage at this time.
Elsewhere, City's Josh Brillante and Western Sydney's Matt Jurman are reportedly set to join Tony Popovic's Xanthi FC.
2000 Light Years Away
The failure of Atkinson and Nabbout to head west shines a spotlight on the challenges faced by Glory in recruitment during the current climate of COVID-19-dictated border restrictions. At time of writing, Glory has just 13 players under contract and rumours, despite the continued denials of officials, continue to swirl around the future of Bruno Fornaroli and Diego Castro.
With Asian Champions League (ACL) football potentially arriving in the coming months, a significant challenge awaits should Glory not want to field a squad full of academy prospects in those fixtures.
"I've sat down with [new coach] Richard Garcia and I'm confident of keeping the squad we've got at the moment and then we'll need to top up," Pignata told ESPN. "We don't know what's happening with the ACL. They've given us some dates but there are no venues -- they've already moved it once.
"My concern isn't going overseas, it's coming back. There's a lot of Australians trying to get back to Australia and not getting flights, so that's something we need to consider as well. There's also the cost of coming back, hotel quarantine for 30-33 people for two weeks. But we'll wait and see. The FFA and the AFC are in discussions, as are the other federations in the east of Asia. We only can do what we can do, but at the moment it's trying to get the squad finalised as soon as possible."
Though further away than possible ACL games, there is also the possibility that border controls might play havoc with Glory's ability to exit and enter their state during the A-League season, which will likely start in January or February (although a December start has not been ruled out).
"I know our premier's on record that he will continue the hard border," Pignata said. "So it's going to make it very difficult for us to basically play home and away. Whether we look at hubbing over here for a few weeks like the AFL has done, or whether we play a few games away when the season's off and running, I don't know."
Pignata also assured ESPN that Glory would field a W-League side in the coming season no matter the border situation.