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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

What can we learn from Sydney FC's Asian adventure?

Australian football waited four years to see another side from the A-Leagues considered for the invitational format of the Asian Football Confederation's premier women's competition, the AFC Women's Club Championship. It was its last edition, with a proper Champions League set to occur from the 2024/25 season onwards. Front Page Football reflects on Sydney FC's performances over their three Group B fixtures in Uzbekistan and what it means for the women's game moving forward.

Sydney FC players celebrate taking the lead against Uzbek side FC Nasaf in their second match. (AFC Media)


The unfamiliar sight of women's continental football greeted an Australian side for only the second time last week. The 2019 invitational forerunner to the AFC Women's Club Championship was the first. On that occasion, a Grace Maher strike for Melbourne Victory against Jiangsu Suning was the only goal across a three-game campaign that ended with Jeff Hopkins' side firmly bottom of the tournament's table against Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean opponents.


With Sydney FC's status as A-League Women's champions, they entered this year's eight-team competition as one of two Pot 1 teams, alongside Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds, yet ahead of the impressive Hyundai Incheon Red Angels, who arrived as favourites with a squad primarily consisting of South Korean internationals.


When the draw was made, Sydney had been dealt a tough hand, placed into Group B with the Red Angels, and the matches to be played in Uzbekistan. The co-hosts had been granted a spot through FC Nasaf, and Iran's Bam Khatoon would join the fight to finish first. Meanwhile, Urawa would be unchallenged by their Group A opponents, likely confirming their spot at the tournament's final in early 2024.


As previously mentioned, the Red Angels are a side fairly stacked with national team talent, with a total of seven players from the recent Olympic Qualifying window lining up for Incheon, mostly overpowering a Sydney FC side on paper, one that would have registered Matilda Cortnee Vine and veteran Nat Tobin if not for injury concerns.

Young players such as Indiana Dos Santos gained valuable experience at the tournament. (KEEPUP)


This state of play ultimately meant Sydney was the only team in the group without internationals; Nasaf and Bam Khatoon featured a handful of influential ones.


In light of this fact, game one against Khatoon went by without much issue for Sydney, as a strike from Fiona Worts got the ball rolling within three minutes, and the Sky Blues did not look back, winning 3-0.


However, game two saw the international presence felt, with Nasaf denying Jada Whyman a second consecutive clean sheet through a stunning long-range effort by 35-cap Uzbek international Nilufar Kudratova. Australian football fans should note Kudratova's dynamism and leadership on the pitch here, as in February, she should face the Matildas in the final playoff stage of Olympic qualification.


Nevertheless, a 2-1 win against the hosts was enough for Sydney to leave it all to a group decider against the experienced Red Angels, as it shaped up as an intriguing game and easily the pick of the group stage.


Unfortunately, the contest was a procession and not in the way Sydney FC and even A-League Women supporters would have liked. A resolute defensive effort still meant the Australian side was never out of the match. Though with halftime looming, South Korean international Hong Hye-Ji picked up the ball in midfield and found Ivorian international Tia Ines Nrehy for a 1-0 lead. The Korean side would go into overdrive in the second half, running out comfortable 3-0 winners and thus eliminating Ante Juric's side.

So, the comfortable win for the South Koreans leaves us in Australia asking an important question. How is it that when compared to the respective domestic structures of other Asian countries, especially South Korea, Japan, and China, the A-League Women seems a structurally more sound competition yet lacks the depth and appeal of these other leagues?


The answer seems clear. Whereas Australian internationals seek moves abroad, Asian players have seldom shown the ambition to do so unless they harbour spectacular talent and are worthy of a more significant contract. Ultimately, for the countries mentioned above, it means a worse national side but better and more competitive domestic teams with less depth concentration, at least in theory.

Another critical factor in this dynamic is that it is seemingly not uncommon for Asian countries to monopolise their female domestic structure. Taking South Korea as a direct example from the tournament, the Red Angels and domestic counterparts Suwon made up 13 of the 23 players in the national team squad for their most recent qualifiers. This example is amplified further when looking at a country like Uzbekistan.

 

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So, for Australia, does a tournament like this one, though offering an expansion of opportunity for women's football in its domestic game, actually teach the landscape any valuable lessons?


In this particular case, fans and critics alike need to look more at development pathways and the many conversations surrounding grassroots governance for a more direct answer into why the South Koreans shaped up the better side.

Australia's domestic women's football system is still, in many ways, the desired end game for most countries in Asia looking to grow female participation and break away from archaic structures.


The 3-0 result can only teach us so much, and for Sydney FC, such an opportunity may yet come again through an expanded Champions League format.


With that in mind, the powers that be need to look at what has been going right in the women's game, the emergence of young talent, namely, above all else. But there is also the increased experience for an Australian women's side that comes with travelling to Central Asia. This talking point is worth watching as the women's game begins to flex its muscles now and in the future.


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