Matildas recall just reward for Chidiac ahead of Japan move

Full story originally published for SBS’ The World Game:

Soon to be playing with the “technical wizards” of the newly launched WE League, Alex Chidiac has overcome the imposter syndrome that accompanied previous national team call-ups after being forced to take the long road back to the Matildas.

Recently arriving into camp as part of coach Tony Gustavsson’s 25-player squad for coming Olympic warm-up fixtures against Denmark and Sweden, Chidiac will, should she see the field on Friday or next Wednesday, officially end an absence from the national side that began with the end of 2019’s Tournament of Nations.

Back then, such a long absence from the national team setup (even if COVID-19 did limit opportunities to return) would have seemed unlikely – the young midfielder’s career arc on a meteoric trajectory after earning a move to Spanish powers Atletico Madrid and playing 501 minutes across 19 appearances as they won the 2018-19 Primera Division Femenina title.

But after missing out on selection to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, an ankle injury subsequently forced her to the sidelines in 2019-20 – a season that was ultimately called off early by Spanish authorities due to the pandemic – and her attempts to force her way back into the Atletico side in 2020-21 ultimately led to just two appearances.

She returned to Australia and began a second stint at Melbourne City in December and became a shining light in what was an otherwise frustrating season for the defending champions: playing more minutes than her three seasons in Spain combined across ten appearances and scoring three goals.

Having faced a series of unfortunate events in both her own career and the greater footballing context, it would have been very easy for Chidiac’s star – one that shone so bright as a 16-year-old Matildas debutant – to begin to burn out under the strain.

But while it has required significant sacrifice and hard work, the 22-year-old has instead grown from the challenges.

“I think I need to back myself in the way that I play [coming into the Matildas’ camp],” Chidiac told The World Game.

“Past times that I’ve come into camp, I think I’ve tried to fit a mould that I thought I should be playing – and that’s not my strength. I think I just need to play to my strengths and I think that’s got me this far. I need to continue to back myself and hopefully slot into the team.

“I think time away from the national team, after getting dropped from that World Cup squad… I was in Spain by myself at that time and really had to learn to just back myself within that squad.

“Suffering that injury, you go through a lot of mental battles while you’re going through that and you have to really break down right to the core of your game again.

“I had to learn how to run once again, too. I think that, from that, building myself back up and playing that season [with City] and being able to get back into form really gave me that confidence.

“I kind of went into the past year with no expectations. I hadn’t played 90 minutes until getting back with City. That whole season was about getting match fit again and getting my confidence back, I was really low after not playing for so long.

“I’m very grateful to City for trusting me to be able to come into the team and be patient for me to get my fitness back and my confidence.

“There’s definitely a surge of adrenaline [when news of a call-up arrives]. You kind of freak out. I think, for me especially, it was quite a special moment, feeling like I really worked my way back into the team.

“I think in the past I didn’t really feel like I deserved a call-up, and this felt a little bit different after all the work that I put in to get back from my injury. It was a very, very nice feeling this time around.”

Despite not yet being certain as to how much she’ll feature in the Matildas’ upcoming battles against Scandinavian opposition, Chidiac’s return has nonetheless given her a chance of forcing her way into coach Gustavsson’s 18-player squad for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

But regardless of whether she’s able to secure a place in the Matildas’ Olympic squad, she’s off to Japan anyway.

The midfielder was announced on Tuesday as the newest signing of Japanese club JEF United, who will take part in the inaugural season of the WE league in 2021-22.

The first fully professional women’s football league in Japanese history, the competition will run from September to May and feature clubs such as 2019 AFC Women’s Club champions Nippon TV Tokyo Verdy Beleza, Urawa Red Diamonds, and INAC Kobe Leonessa.

Set to be made up of 11 teams playing in a full home-and-away format, the professionalism, investment from the Japanese federation and season length is shaping the competition as a major challenge for the W-League and its place in Asia, with the PFA’s recently released 2020-21 W-League report adding yet another voice to the chorus calling for the introduction of more matches.

The APL has indicated that the expansion of the W-League is one of its major focuses heading into the 2021-22 season.

“After the first few games with City there was a club that was interested from that and that was JEF and we’ve been talking ever since,” Chidiac recalled.

“It’s been in the works for quite a while now and I had to keep it a secret – I signed quite some time ago now.

“They’re really investing a lot into the league there and Japan is really getting around the women’s league. They’ve always been such a powerhouse in the women’s game. I remember when I was playing with youth Australian teams, Japan was always the team to beat and we never ended up beating them.

“Technical wizards, honestly. It’s so hard to get the ball off them.

“It’s similar to Spain, so I feel like that really does suit my style and I’d love to go over there and continue to learn and build on what I’ve learnt in Spain and Australia.

“They are incredible footballers and I was always in awe of the way they played. It’s an honour to play in that league amongst the players they have there and get a spot with JEF united.

“It’s been one of my goals, I just never thought it would happen. I’m very, very happy to be heading over there.”

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