The A-League finals have taken a heavy hit more than two months out, a big step has been taken on the road to the Women's World Cup, and the W-League is serving up some massive highs and, unfortunately, a few lows. It's all here in the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap!
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
Don't say Graham Arnold didn't warn us.
"I was maybe the only coach who looked at the international program before the season started, I don't understand what the fuss is about," the then-Sydney FC coach said back in 2018. "I did hear a comment about the young players going, but I didn't know the A-League was a development league."
Arnold's remarks on prioritising players who wouldn't be called up for mid-season international duty became remarkably prescient this week when the now-dual Socceroos and Olyroos boss confirmed to The Sydney Morning Herald that he would select an extended, full-strength squad for World Cup Qualifiers in June. A first-choice Olyroos squad will also assemble in Europe during that period.
The timing of that international window means those selected for their country -- which still remains the ultimate honour in football no matter what club fans try to tell you -- will be unavailable for the A-League.
Melbourne City coach Patrick Kisnorbo may have told journalists on Wednesday that he hadn't yet thought about how he would replace international call-ups -- concerning given that he might be losing seven players in less than two months -- but the ability of A-League bosses to improvise with selections and systems, as they juggle preparing for potential departures with maintaining performance, will make for intriguing viewing.
Does a coach continue to ride their best players in pursuit of results and potentially leave their replacement underdone come finals time? Can coaches demonstrate their approach isn't reliant on the individual brilliance or improvisational skill of one or two players? Do they rotate, share minutes and bring more players in to lessen the drop-off but, potentially, limit their success in the short-term?
If the latter occurs, how does a player react knowing that a reduction in minutes or performance could see them fall out of contention for international duty?
As an aside, there has been talk that the absence of Socceroos and Olyroos for the finals could compromise the integrity of the competition but, with the A-League fixture already scheduling some sides to meet three times and others only twice, it'll probably manage this devastating blow.
Adelaide, Auckland, Brisbane, Dunedin, Hamilton, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, and Wellington will host games, with the tournament opener staged at Aukland's Eden Park and the decider at Sydney's Stadium Australia.
The tournament will be the biggest sporting event staged in Australia since the 2000 Olympic Games, but, unfortunately for Football Australia, efforts to secure $A275 million in funding for legacy projects surrounding the project have hit a number of barriers with government. The federation's chief executive, James Johnson, last week revealed that only a partial commitment for funding had been delivered.
Nonetheless, speaking at AAMI Park after the announcement that the stadium would serve as one of the host venues for the 2023 Women's World Cup, Football Australia chairman Chris Nikou said that lobbying efforts would continue to ensure the tournament left a long-standing legacy -- which has been identified by the federation as the key strategic goal of the event.
In light of the continued growth in participation in the sport -- Football Australia expects an extra 400,000 participants off the back of the Women's World Cup alone -- and the failure of Australian football to capitalise on hosting the Asian Cup in 2015, it's a welcome focus.
"The big-ticket item for the sport is the legacy piece this time -- physical infrastructure," Nikou said.
"I don't think anyone inside the sport is not aware that the growth of the sport has been phenomenal but the growth of the infrastructure, be it at grassroots or the stadia level, needs to catch up.
"I tthink that's a major challenge. I have little doubt that Australia and New Zealand will put on a wonderful tournament but for me and head office it's really about the legacy piece, be it physical, the programs about women's sport, leadership; all those sorts of issues are really important.
"[The $275m target will be boosted by] a combination for support from FIFA, federal and state governments. Now that we've got the host cities we can fine-tune the financial requirements.
"There is a detailed legacy piece or gaps analysis that's been done on infrastructure -- so we know what is missing. We won't get everything but I think we can make a compelling case as to why more needs to be done. Only one in five facilities are female friendly in this country, and I think in good conscience that can't be allowed to continue.
"The biggest issue is not necessarily attracting the participants; it's the infrastructure. We need local, state and federal governments to help us solve that issue because there's no point attracting them if we can't accommodate them. The infrastructure needs to keep pace."
Nikou also reiterated Australia's commitment to using the tournament to drive gender equality in Australia and the surrounding region -- a key facet of the bid's ability to gather support over the rival Colombian effort during the bidding process.
"Being part of the [Asian Football Confederation], they look to countries like Australia to discharge a bit of a moral responsibility about bringing the sport along," Nikou said. "I think Australians do it very well; not perfect, I'm not saying that.
"I'd like to see more workshops for our Asian colleagues but also [expansion of] the Pacific Step-Up. I was fortunate last year to go to Vanuatu when the Junior Matildas were playing, and just the diplomacy of our girls mingling with Pacific Islanders resonated well; it resonates well with government.
"We want to bring everyone along on that journey."
Everyone loves a comeback story
Thursday night was comeback night in the A-League, with chaos once again on the menu.
In Melbourne, a strong, 20-minute opening to the second stanza was enough for Western United to drag themselves back from a one-goal deficit to down Melbourne City at AAMI Park. Alessandro Diamanti, Lachlan Wales and Luke Duzel all impressed as the sophomore side recorded their first win over their local foes and snapped City's six-game winning run.
The 2020-21 A-League's best story then wrote another chapter in Gosford when the Mariners somehow survived two missed penalties and a one-goal deficit to down Adelaide United 2-1.
Having played five games without a goal, Alou Kuol returned to the scoresheet when he slotted home the winner -- the scenes after the goal once again reminding us why it's just so hard to hate this Mariners side this year.
Dub Highlights and Lowlights
The W-League's regular-season reached a thrilling conclusion on Wednesday, when Sydney FC downed Melbourne Victory 2-1 to secure their first Premiership in 10 years and home-field advantage throughout the finals.
Sydney FC will now host Canberra United in one semifinal, while Melbourne Victory will travel to face Brisbane Roar at a venue yet to be determined due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in the River City.
Uncertainty gripped the W-League heading into the season, but 2020-21, its regular season concluded, has emerged as one of the most memorable in the competition's history for mostly the right reasons.
The chaotic and unpredictable nature of games, emergence of a new generation of potential stars, and the continued exploits of a smattering of beloved veterans, has imbued the league with a seemingly never-ending supply of narratives that ran the gamut of joyful to heartbreaking and, for those paying attention, cushioned the blow of the departure of a host of Matildas.
"It's interesting because I think when the W-League started this year I think there was a good deal of doom and gloom," New Zealand women's national team coach Tom Sermanni said.
"I think we've all been proven wrong, I think it's been a fantastic season. What I think has happened is that some of the young players have really stepped up to the mantle.
"From an actual purist football perspective, the games have been very good because they've been very team-oriented because they're not just depending on one or two players.
"All of a sudden these young players who would be completely overshadowed by the key players in the national team... are having to take on more responsibility but they're also getting more recognition.
"The fans come to the games and are starting to get to know these other players as opposed to just focusing on the key Matildas. I think that's a great thing for the young players because you suddenly feel important whereas before you were just the support act.
"Now they are key players in a competitive league where results matter and you're on television. So all of those things, it helped to firstly give them confidence but also helped to boost their performances and their development."
Sermanni has kept a close eye on the W-League in 2020-21, particularly the seven New Zealand players in the competition.
"One player [who has] really caught the eye and got better and better is Kyra Cooney-Cross," he said.
"I think she's really stepped up and is showing herself to be a really quality player. She's got good vision, what I would call really good football habits. She has a good feel for the game, a good understanding of the game, and can pull something out that's really special.
"I think Hana Lowry at the Glory, the more I've seen of her -- because we've got three Kiwis at Perth, so I've watched a lot of Perth games -- she's continued to really mature as the season has gone on.
"The other one... [who] has impressed me is Angela Beard, the left-back at Melbourne Victory. She's a real goer. The more I've started to see of her and her ability to get forward and her confidence to get forward, and some of the quality play in the attacking final third, I think has been very good."
Unfortunately, the W-League in 2020-21 hasn't always grabbed the headlines for the right reasons.
During Wednesday's game -- the culmination of a season's worth of effort -- viewers on Kayo -- a number of whom were perhaps getting their first look at the W-League thanks to the contest being a 'Kayo Freebie' -- were unable to see Princess Ibini's penalty due to a stuttering, pausing and distorted stream.
The shadow this issue, and similar others through the season, casts over what has been one of the best W-League competitions in years has done the league no favours. The league is already fighting for every moment of mainstream coverage it can get, and these moments -- which thanks to their comedically haphazard nature permeate the wider zeitgeist with greater ease -- serve only to paint the competition as an interior product.
A commitment to providing professional and high-quality coverage of the W-League and women's football should go beyond basking in the reflected glow of the exploits of the Matildas or the coming Women's World Cup. It means treating the rest of the game and commitments with respect.
For technical issues to continue happening, after the howls of protest and in one of the biggest games of the season, sends a message -- one that should be heeded by leagues looking to secure a new broadcast agreement to grow and develop their wares.
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