Sermanni still hopeful of New Zealand W-League expansion

Full story first published in SBS’ The World Game:

New Zealand women’s national team coach Tom Sermanni retains hope that Wellington Phoenix will eventually be represented in the W-League and has revealed some of the challenges the Football Ferns are facing on the road to the Tokyo Olympics.

Club owners had given Wellington’s entry into the W-League for the 2020-21 campaign the green light last October, only for the move to be scuppered when Football Australia declined to alter the regulations of the competition to allow the side to field an unlimited number of New Zealanders – as is the case for Phoenix’s A-League side. 

Under such a scenario, the Nix would have only been able to field up to five New Zealanders as part of their squad; largely defeating its purpose as an incubator of young Kiwi talent ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand – which carried, somewhat ironically in hindsight, an “As One” tagline during the bidding process.

Subsequent reports indicated that Football Australia’s reluctance to allow for the introduction of a de-facto New Zealand B-side into the W-League stemmed from a desire to prioritise the repair of Australia’s own developmental pathways, the problems with which were laid bare in its Women’s Performance Gap report released in December.  

Though Australia’s professional leagues are now independent, Football Australia still retains, amongst other powers, final say over expansion and contraction of the competitions.

At the time, Sermanni, who had been lined up to serve as both Football Ferns and Phoenix’s W-League boss, expressed his dismay to ESPN that the discourse surrounding the blocking of Phoenix’s W-League aspirations had been framed in a manner that made the side appear a threat to the development of Australian players. 

Instead, the Matildas’ boss from 2005 to 2012 was of the belief that expansion of the league and the addition of new players and different styles only would have aided the competition, a view he reiterated on Tuesday as he reaffirmed his desire to see the Phoenix in the W-League. 

“We would love to get a team in the league,” he said. “Obviously, we tried this season but it was all very late and became difficult. 

“It’s one of the things that we have on the agenda to bring a team into the W-League from New Zealand. 

“I think there are loads of benefits from that in a football sense in helping expand the league, bringing a different set of players into the league and a different competitive group. 

“When I see the competition, particularly from the AFLW that we get now that they’re promoting that, we actually have the World Game. We’ve got a great chance to expand the women’s game into New Zealand, Oceania and the South Pacific. 

“I think that would be great. I think it’s a great story for football and hopefully, we can pull that off.”

Without a team of their own, New Zealand has had seven players signed to W-League clubs this season, four of which – Canberra United’s Paige Satchell, Brisbane Roar’s Oliva Chance and Melbourne Victory’s Annalie Longo and Claudia Bunge – will be playing finals football. 

2020-21 marks Satchell and Bunge’s first years playing in the W-League, and their national team boss says they’ve significantly benefited from the experience. 

“They’re loving it,” he said. “They’re loving the involvement with the teams, playing full time and for the first time in their careers that they’re actually getting paid some money to play football.

“I think as the season has gone on both of them have really sort of started to mature and the performances have continued to develop the longer that they’ve had more game time.” 

Beyond the political machinations surrounding a Nix W-League side, Sermanni is also grappling with preparing the New Zealand national team for the Tokyo Olympics, the women’s football portion of which is scheduled to begin on July 21. 

The Football Ferns haven’t played a competitive fixture since the Algarve Cup in March 2020 and currently do not have any matches scheduled prior to the Olympics’ commencement. 

The Matildas, likewise, haven’t played a game since March of last year but while they will be returning to action in friendlies next month against Germany and the Netherlands, Sermanni explained that the situation was more complicated for his side. 

“The one advantage that Australia over us is that they have all their players in Europe — or they have a sufficiently big enough core — our players are literally spread everywhere,” he said. 

“[New Zealand has players in] the East Coast of America and the West Coast of America in the NWSL. We’ve got two or three in college in America and we’ve got three or four home-based in NZ. 

“We’ve got seven in the W-League, four of whom are regular in the squad players and then we’ve got a whole staff in New Zealand. 

“The biggest factor is probably not so much getting somewhere, but then being able to get back again. 

“At the moment, New Zealand is actually booked up through to June for people to try and get into the country. And then there’s the actual cost of coming back, because in the past when you could just jump on flights wily-nily, to actually get a flight and the cost of those flights is just so prohibitive that we can’t get everyone together. 

“So we have four players in the NWSL and we have three players in Northern Europe and I’m unlikely to see them until we actually get to Tokyo. 

“I’m trying to get as many of us back to New Zealand by the end of May if possible to at least try and get some connection with the team and the players.

“At the moment if I go there I still need to do two weeks quarantine. So, I haven’t been there since last February. And I haven’t seen the players since the middle of March last year.”

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