When Melbourne City’s players accepted the W-League premiers plate after the 1-0 win over Brisbane Roar earlier this week, there were few teams who had earned the plaudits as much as the women in white and sky blue.
Pulled together in August, the squad is full of talent in every position, with top international players, leading Matildas and some of the more promising youngsters in the Australian game.
They have breezed through the season in remarkable fashion, notching up a perfect 10 out of 10, winning the minor premiership with a couple of rounds to spare and scoring 32 goals, while conceding only three.
But it is not just the way they have steamrolled all opposition that has been so significant. City have shown that when a club is prepared to take the women’s game seriously, invest properly in players, infrastructure and talent, then much can be achieved in a short time.
Critics have taken a pop at the club’s moneybags status, and derided the way they have gone about scooping up so much of the available talent. Some have claimed that City have made a mockery of the league and rendered it uncompetitive with the strength of their line-up.
But that is surely beside the point. The salary cap in the women’s game is just $150,000 – barely the wages of a middle-ranking A-League midfielder. That’s $150,000 for the whole squad to share among themselves, not just cash for a handful of better-known players.
It should not be beyond the scope of any team in the professional Australian game to find that sort of cash for their entire W-League outfit given how much clubs are prepared to spend on marquee men and journeymen players for their men’s teams.
Alen Stajcic, the Matildas coach, was at the ground at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast on Monday when, surrounded by Norfolk Pines and low rise suburban apartments, City’s women clinched the title.
It was not a glamorous venue, but that is the way of the world for W-League players, even those like City forward Kim Little, who are among the best in the world. So often they lead a peripatetic existence, turning up at a variety of venues during the season, playing in front of sparse crowds with little fanfare.
Ask the national coach if City are bad for the game and you will be met with a shake of the head and a smile.
“How can it be?” Stajcic says. “Look at what you are seeing out there. These girls have real talent, they are working hard, developing their skills and improving all the time.
“There are terrific foreigners like Kim Little [a Scot], Jess Fishlock [Welsh] and experienced Matildas like Lisa De Vanna and Steph Catley all playing alongside some promising young Australians. How can those girls not improve with what they are learning from players like that?
“They see them in training, how they prepare for games, how they approach the whole business and it has to help them develop their game. It will also help the Matildas and the game here too.
“In my view what City is doing is helping the game by raising the bar. All the other clubs will hopefully see what they have done and try to compete, to challenge.
“As the quality of the game improves and the media and coverage increases, more and more girls will want to play. They will see these players as heroes, players they want to look up to and emulate.
“It is already happening – all the statistics consistently show that the number of girls playing football is constantly increasing.
“In a way it’s a perfect sport for them: it’s physical and demanding and gives them a chance to play in a team environment and develop technical skills, but unlike the rugby codes or Australian rules it isn’t full-on body contact with a much higher risk of injury. And if they reach elite level they do get a chance to compete at Olympic Game and in World Cups.”
For City’s W-League coach Joe Montemurro the end result, a grand final win in the club’s first season, is now so close that he is determined there can be no slip-ups.
“We built this team to play good football, then the results started coming and we started to believe,” he said earlier this week.
“We were always recruiting good characters, and as results came and momentum builds they believed more in what we were doing.
“On the national scale you expect to come up against the best of the best. We have been good enough to overcome every challenge.”
The key, says the coach, has been to treat the women’s game as seriously in its context as the City Football Group group treats the men’s team.
“From the day I got the job it was going to be a professional set-up. We would be training like our A-League side, looking at load managements, all the wellness and good stuff that professional footballers need. That’s what these girls deserve, they are at the top of their tree.”
Does he believe that City have now set a benchmark that should be copied?
“Can there be full-time professional football? Can the salary cap improve? Can the facilities improve? Absolutely,” Montemurro says.
“The game will need to grow that way, but we still need to look at development and make sure that our development structure is producing players at the local level.
“Bringing in the internationals, we hope that they give us the extra that the local players need. That level of professionalism that they bring to us is important to show the local players what is required to reach the top.”
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