Star signing Princess Ibini set to boost UNSW on and off the pitch
The University of New South Wales (UNSW) meeting with Hills United in the Football NSW (FNSW) League One Women's competition was already a hotly anticipated affair. The first versus third clash saw both sides looking to continue their respective pushes for the top spot and promotion to the NPL.
While the match didn’t need anything extra to increase the sense of occasion, it was received anyway when Sydney FC star and eight-time Matilda Princess Ibini appeared for the first time at The Village Green in front of her new home supporters.
While it is common for A-League Women stars to join NPL sides in the winter, it’s rare for them to link up with a side outside a state’s top flight. So, it is a massive coup for UNSW to bring a player with Ibini’s stature to the second tier of NSW football.
Princess Ibini was unveiled as a UNSW player on June 7. (UNSW Football Club Facebook)
The signing represents the growing stature of the club, which leads the FNSW League Two Men's and is second in the League One Women's, with both sides in good positions for promotion. Front Page Football was at The Village Green to witness Ibini’s debut for the club first-hand.
Off the pitch, there was undoubtedly a sense of occasion as a mix of young fans and students from the university filled the main stand, with the younger onlookers particularly making a lot of noise when the side began their warm-up. Plenty of handmade signs were visible, with many fans excited to see the club's new star signing.
On it, Ibini lined up as the left-sided striker in a 3-4-1-2 formation, seeing her cover similar areas of the pitch to what she does with Sydney FC. Her quality was on full display early on. It garnered attention from the Hills backline, who, in the early stages of the match, was doubling up on Ibini, leaving space for other UNSW forwards to exploit.
Ibini completed most of her dribbles throughout the match and was at the centre of the best chances from either side. Despite her influence, UNSW did not rely too much on the forward, with Amanda Levaskevich, Marcella Santos, and club stalwart Cassandra Christopher all playing crucial roles.
UNSW are currently undefeated in the FNSW League One Women's, with 12 wins and three draws in 15 games. (UNSW Football Club Facebook)
UNSW was held scoreless by a strong Hills defence and a string of impressive saves from captain Sarah Easthope, with the match ending in a scoreless draw.
Front Page Football spoke to Princess Ibini and UNSW Women's Football Program Director and Board Member Nick Apoifis after the match.
While the signing surprised many, Apoifis spoke about the club’s links to Sydney FC through the university and how Ibini's signature aligned with their ambition to grow both on and off the field, particularly in women’s football.
“We had a pre-existing relationship with Sydney FC through the university, so that was the beginning of the feelers,” Apoifis told FPF.
“But when we were able to contact Princess, we spoke to her about our aspirations, particularly that gender equality aspect of football; that we're serious about this and investing resources into the women’s game and bringing that professionalism to our club by bringing in such a big name.”
For Ibini, who also mentioned the link between UNSW and Sydney FC, the chance for success with the club helped entice her to sign.
“I want to help them get promoted; they messaged me on the last day to register, and I wasn’t planning to play NPL football this season. But it was a good opportunity, and I thought I could help the club because they’re a major sponsor for Sydney FC as well,” Ibini said.
“It’s a lovely club; I’m enjoying my time here; I want to keep getting match minutes too and be ready for the next (A-League Women) season.”
Ibini is coming off a stellar A-League Women's campaign, helping Sydney FC win the double and scoring in the Grand Final. (RFI)
Apoifis also noted her desire to help the club achieve promotion, complimenting the work Ibini has put in at training and how well she has integrated into the culture already built within the squad.
The Central Coast Mariners are currently UNSW’s biggest rivals for promotion. They are a point ahead of UNSW, but Apoifis was hopeful, albeit reserved, about the club's chances to secure automatic promotion.
“Central Coast are a class outfit, and they’ve got similar aspirations to ours; we’ll let the football do the talking over the coming months, and hopefully, we have the right team to get us promoted,” Apoifis said.
Ibini believes the side is as good as the opposition she has previously faced in the NPL, particularly compared to those promoted from League One.
“There’s not much difference (between UNSW and other NPL sides). I’ve played against clubs that have come up from this league before, and it’s basically the same,” Ibini said.
While the move caught the attention of many within the New South Wales football landscape, Apoifis reiterated it was not the intention behind the signing. Instead, it was made solely to help raise the club's standards.
“We're more internally focused. It was a message to our club and our community that we're a serious club, and we invest in our game,” Apoifis said.
“You can see from tonight; the fans were buzzing. And it’s not just the senior girls seeing it when training with someone like Princess, but the junior girls get inspiration too, seeing a genuine A-League star at our ground. The buzz is immense!”
It’s a buzz that is coming at a perfect time. With the Women’s World Cup less than a month away, helping to put women’s football in the spotlight, Ibini, Apoifis, and UNSW hope the event helps inspire a new generation of talented footballers.
“We know disproportionately that young girls leave the game in a greater number than the boys do, so investing in the game and [having] that visibility of big-name players to gain that aspirational aspect of it, young girls are here saying, ‘I can do that, I can be there one day,” Apoifis said.
Ibini echoed how important it is for young female footballers to be inspired by world-class football in their backyard.
“Having the Women’s World Cup [in Australia] will help local football; seeing Australia on home soil should help get more people to play football and more numbers involved,” she said.
READ MORE WOMEN'S FOOTBALL CONTENT ON FPF
Signing Princess Ibini speaks a lot to UNSW's ambition on and off the pitch with their women’s program at a pivotal time for the sport in Australia. The excitement created around Ibini’s debut could be a glimpse into what’s in store for the future as the club continues to build.
However, while it is easy to get caught up in the hype of this news, the club's goal is to ensure its growth doesn’t compromise its reputation as a community club.
“My mentality is to get us through this season. Although we are an aspirational club, we will do right by our pre-existing players as well [and to continue to be] a community club that builds on those values,” Apoifis said.
A clear strategy for success in the stands and on the pitch is evident at UNSW, culminating with results so far this season.
Princess Ibini will again be in action at The Village Green this Sunday when UNSW host South Coast Flame. As the women’s game continues to grow, with a boom in interest expected over the next twelve months, now is as good a time as any to support local women's football and see high-quality talent in the NPL system.
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