The battle for a NZ team in the W-League

New Zealand needs a professional women’s football league – or even a pro team – to keep in step with the rest of the world. So could a female Wellington Phoenix team in Australia’s W-League be on the near horizon? Ella Reilly finds out.

The nations who made the top eight at this year’s Women’s World Cup all had something else in common: growing, and increasingly thriving, domestic professional football leagues, that the vast majority of their squads play in.

Women’s football is an exponentially and rapidly evolving sport, and to have success in international competitions, piecemeal preparation programmes are inadequate.

A significant component of this preparation is the growth and development of the professional game. Football clubs and leagues around the world are – finally - significantly increasing their investment in their women’s teams (think Lyon, Manchester City, Arsenal), and recognising the opportunities it provides.

New Zealand, in contrast, does not have a women’s professional football league, or even a professional team.

Those Football Ferns who play professionally are scattered throughout the United States and European leagues.

Without a clear pathway to professional football in this country, New Zealand is at risk of falling further behind the rest of the world. The best case scenario is that a pathway is established in the next couple of years.

When asked for her thoughts on this missing piece of the domestic women’s football puzzle, and what it means for her Football Ferns team, Sarah Gregorius is unequivocal.

“I think some form of professional pathway, even if it’s just for a short window each year, is massive,” the Ferns forward says.

“A team in the W-League, in my opinion, is critical.

“We could really use it right about now. And if it gets put in in the next year or two, it’ll make a huge difference in 2023 and 2027 [the next two World Cups]."

The W-League, Australia’s professional women’s football league, is set to begin the 2019/20 season in mid-November, running till late February.  Eight of the clubs who have teams in the men’s A-League also field sides in the nine-team women’s league (with Canberra United being the only team sans an A-League counterpart).

Since its establishment in 2008, the W-League has been crucial in growing Australia’s talent base - including one of the world’s best forwards in Sam Kerr - and the Matildas have become mainstays in the world’s top 10.

The Wellington Phoenix are keen to fill the obvious gap in New Zealand’s women’s sports scene with a professional football team.

Sarah Gregorius on the break in the Football Ferns' 2018 friendly with Japan - their first home game in three years. Photo: Getty Images

The Phoenix’ general manager, David Dome, says they recognise that as New Zealand’s only professional football club they have a key role to play in elevating women’s football.

“As a club we don’t feel like a full club unless we have a female side of our business,” he says.

But the club’s efforts to prepare for the W-League were hamstrung by a number of issues, including plans to enter a team in New Zealand’s top women’s domestic competition this season being turned down by New Zealand Football.

Pushing the pinnacle higher

In recent years, NZ Football has helped to fill the professional gap for young players hoping to make the next step through the FFDP (the acronym has variously stood for Football Ferns Development Programme or Future Ferns Development Programme).

The Auckland-based training programme is designed to replicate professional training environments, and has a team playing in one of Auckland’s top boys leagues. To date, the programme has seen eight female players move on to professional contracts overseas.

The National Women’s League (NWL), is currently the pinnacle competition of New Zealand women’s domestic football. This year’s edition kicked off in mid-September.

Contested by representative teams from each of New Zealand’s seven football federations, it became a full home-and-away, double-round competition in 2018 for the first time.

It’s a crucial part of the development pathway: the entire bronze medal-winning U17s squad of 2018 has appeared in it, and almost all of the Football Ferns World Cup squad have played in various forms of the NWL at some point. The league bears the tagline: ‘Where Football Ferns are made’.

But the fact remains that the NWL is an amateur competition. It’s vital for enabling New Zealand’s best female players to compete against one another. But, on its own, it’s not enough to bridge the gap between domestic football in New Zealand and the demands of top-level international competition.

The pinnacle needs to be pushed higher. And adding another layer to the talent development pyramid will do that.

The absence of a clear and visible pathway to professional football in New Zealand also potentially restricts the attractiveness of the sport to girls growing up dreaming of a career in professional sport, notes Gregorius.

“The NWL is really important, it’s a great stepping stone to other things, but it’s not enough,” she says.

“If you look at it at the minute, you’ve got more sustainable domestic career options in cricket, netball, rugby and rugby sevens.

“There has to be something visible for young Kiwi girls to look at and hang on to. Otherwise we aren’t even going to have the pick of the athletes.”

A New Zealand W-League team

The Wellington Phoenix are only too well aware there are financial challenges to entering another team in a professional league in Australia.

“The club at the moment doesn’t make a profit, so we’d be looking at putting money into another part of the business that won’t make a profit,” Dome says. “But, I’m strongly of the belief - and the board is strongly of the belief - that we have to be in this space if we are to be a fully-fledged football club.”

Rebekah Stott (centre) celebrates with Melbourne City team-mates Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes after winning the 2018 W-League. Photo: Getty Images

But attempts to establish a women’s side to the Phoenix hasn’t been a simple process. The league’s previous governing body, Football Federation Australia (FFA), had only given the side short-term licences to compete in the A-League, and met their attempts to obtain a W-League licence with “a fair bit of resistance".

“With the transition to a new structure [in which the clubs own the league], we’re hopeful that a W-League licence for the Phoenix will eventuate,” says Dome.

However, he adds, “there is work to be done in that space yet”.

The best-case scenario, Dome says, would be entering a team into the 2020/2021 edition of the W-League.

“If we’re going to do this, we have to do it properly. And that includes putting in the full support, the full suite of support, that the men’s side of the business has,” he says.

“We’re not going to go into this without providing that same level of support. So that would include all the coaches, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning, and including a youth development structure.”

To help prepare for the 2020 W-League target, the Phoenix had approached NZ Football about entering a team in the NWL for the 2019 season, but were turned down.

“It’s absolutely a non-negotiable that you need the development structures,” says Dome. “You can’t just drop players into a professional league like the W-League without having blooded them into a full summer competition, winter competition, whatever it is, where they are playing with those same support structures surrounding them.

“Hence we wanted to have it start this year, but it wasn’t to be.”

NZ Football are “supportive of the concept” of a Wellington Phoenix NWL team, says competitions manager Dan Farrow.

“But there’s a couple of big things still that we just need to work through,” he says.

“One is the financial implications - there’s a significant cost coming into the competition around an eighth team, and there’s some bigger integration discussions around how a Phoenix development team might fit into the overall talent pathway.

“There are some other discussions around the NZ Football FFDP programme, and how we would align that team and structure into the FFDP programme?

“That’s just a critical part of the discussion - to say if we’re going to introduce a new part to the talent pathway, who’s the target audience, what are the group of the players, how does that fit into the pathway at the moment?”

Farrow says, however, that there is “real potential” for a Phoenix team to be entered in the 2020 NWL season.

The Wellington Phoenix becoming a player in the women’s football space in New Zealand would be a huge addition to women’s football talent space. And Dome is emphatic that the Phoenix are best-placed to do it.

“We know how to do it, we know how to build it. We have all the skill sets in-house,” he says.

“We just need the powers that be to allow us to be in the competitions, so that we can offer the channel right through from the amateur side of the business - playing in the youth teams, in the Capital Football [Wellington region’s federation] and NZ Football’s competitions - right through to the W-League.”

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