Alex Chidiac's journey a lesson for Matildas eying Europe

When the trickle of Matildas moving to Europe turned into a flood last year, many involved in Australian football -- particularly the W-League -- were anxious that these players would never return, taking not just title-winning talent but also mainstream star power with them.

However, fears about an irreversible player drain have been somewhat allayed this season, with several big-name Australia internationals returning to the W-League after discovering that Europe was not all it might have been cracked up to be.

One such player is Melbourne City's Alex Chidiac. Her move to Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in 2018 foreshadowed the continental shift that was to come; but after spending a few years in Europe, the midfielder opted to come home upon the mutual termination of her contract.

"I guess [the decision to return] started in 2019, when I first got injured," Chidiac told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "The injury shouldn't have lasted as long as it did, and I think when COVID hit too, everything was just up in the air and things were taking longer than I would've liked [them] to.

"I just needed a little bit of stability, to know what was going on, and get my ankle sorted out. So that had a bit to do with it. A little more consistency of game time and being around family and friends -- a little bit of everything came into that decision."

- Sam Kerr named Young Australian Achiever in UK
- Gustavsson promises 'blank paper' for Matildas' Olympic aspirants

She wasn't alone. City teammate Jenna McCormick also returned to Australia after spending six months with Real Betis in Spain, telling media she thought she "didn't get the respect [she] deserved" while she was there.

City captain Emma Checker returned too, after an injury cut her time with French club FC Fleury 91 short, citing Australia's higher-quality medical standards as one reason for coming home.

These are the off-field aspects to the international footballing experience that many fans don't see.

Chidiac, for example, gained direct insight into the less developed aspects of the women's game in Europe after the entire Primera Iberdrola league went on strike in 2019 to protest the lack of a collective bargaining agreement, which would have guaranteed players minimum wages and other standards such as maternity leave, medical care and travel.

Even in a nation like Spain, where football is the heartbeat of its culture, support for the women's game can fall short of the basics -- particularly if you're part of a smaller or less wealthy club.

"It's difficult because the women's game is still growing and you're not sure what you're going to get with a lot of clubs," Chidiac said. "Some clubs have a very big name and you think, from the outside looking in, that it's all very professional and things are done the right way.

"But sometimes that's not what you get, unfortunately. But that's still growing in that sense, too. There were times that you would think things would be a lot better and the standard would be better, and that's why now, looking back at the W-League and what we have here -- especially with the support of the PFA -- we're very fortunate.

"I think that Australia is ahead of the game in that sense. That's another reason why I'm back right now: I just needed that support.

"That's something that a lot of young players here need to be aware of. When I was younger, coming through, I had no idea how good I had it [in the W-League]. The PFA have gotten us a minimum wage. In my first season, which wasn't so long ago, I didn't get paid here. And now, players coming in, they get a lot of support.

"I'm very, very grateful [that] even while I was over in Spain, the PFA would support me and [be] in constant contact. So I think we have it very, very good here and I'm proud to be Australian for that."

There is an air of presumptuousness to discussions of Europe as the next frontier of women's club football -- based, perhaps, on the optics of money and glamour that has made it the centre of the men's game.

However, outside of Europe's biggest (and richest) women's clubs such as Olympique Lyonnais, Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, there is a noticeable drop-off in standards for players behind the scenes. These disparities are partly why so many of the world's best women footballers have flocked to just a handful of clubs, and thus why leagues themselves are becoming increasingly lop-sided.

Melbourne City head coach Rado Vidosic, who currently oversees some of these European returnees, believes the W-League can become one of the best leagues in the world in this more holistic, player-centric sense -- but only if it becomes a full-time competition.

"You can't blame them to have a go," he said. "Not all of them [in Europe] are playing -- a lot of them are injured -- so the grass is not that much greener overseas.

"It's a better competition because it's a whole year round and they're more involved, they've got more games, but obviously there are few leagues in the world that are probably not as good as we could be if we go full-time.

"I think the solution is to have our W-League the same length as the A-League, and then those players that don't want to go overseas can stay here and be equally prepared for the national teams like players in Europe [are]."

- W-League on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)
- Lewis: Ugly scenes spoil an epic Melbourne Derby

The guiding principle for the future of women's club football, then, ought to be choice; giving women players the option to play in a number of clubs and leagues around the world and where their professional and personal lives do not suffer as a result of the disparities between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

Such a principle folds into what new Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson believes about the "best" leagues for players to be working in: that every player's journey is different, and thus, by extension, every player should have multiple paths available in order to find what works best for them.

"When people ask me, 'where should the players play? Should they play here, is that the best league? Is it good that everyone now is in Europe?'" said Gustavsson.

"What I will say is every individual has a different pathway.

"I've been in the game for so long, over 20 years, and seen that not one path fits all in football. Every player has to find their way and their journey to their full potential. Obviously, from a national team coach perspective, there are some statistics that say the higher up they represent at club level, the larger is the chance to win something -- meaning if they're playing at the bigger clubs and the bigger leagues, they get exposed to the best type of training and the best type of games and so forth.

"But for each individual, the journey is different. So in that sense, I think it's a little bit dangerous to compare and say 'that is better than that,' but it could be different. There's different culture and different aspects of it, and I think a lot of our players now get exposure to [those] different aspects.

"Only the player themselves will know whether they thrive in that environment and get better, or whether they need to move on and get a new challenge -- whether that's in the W-League or whether that's in Europe or over in the U.S. or another league or another club.

"That's mostly up to the individual to know what's best for them and their development."