Having secured a dream move to Bristol City, midfielder Ella Mastrantonio is acutely aware that the growing attraction of club football overseas for Australian players could redefine the W-League.

Since the conclusion of the 2019/20 domestic season, a significant exodus of Australians to the FA Women’s Super League and European club competitions has punctuated a usually predictable off-season, where Australian players typically head to the NWSL in the United States.

The recently published PFA W-League Report reveals that 93% of Australians abroad are now based in England and Europe, up from 39% this time last year, illustrating a shifting trend across the Atlantic.

Although that trend has been emerging in recent years, the transfers of Sam Kerr (Chelsea), Hayley Raso (Everton), Ellie Carpenter (Olympique Lyon), McKenzie Arnold (West Ham United), Lydia Williams and Steph Catley joining Caitlin Foord (Arsenal), Kyah Simon and Amy Harrison (PSV) through to Mastrantonio, has revealed that magnetic pull from clubs in the UK and Europe is reaching a peak.

Previously Australian players who had frequently based themselves in America’s NWSL were aware of the mutually beneficial, albeit unofficial, relationship with the North American league and the W-League, capitalising on the 12-month calendar of football.

However, instead of intersecting, the W-League and European competitions go head to head, meaning the departure of quality from the W-League is likely permanent.

For Mastrantonio, who has been a W-League mainstay since 2008 – having played for Perth Glory, Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers – this signals a change in the trajectory of the W-League, as Australian players seek overseas alternatives.

“I’m incredibly proud and excited to have made the move to Bristol City and to the FAWSL,” Mastrantonio told pfa.net.au.

“The league is currently probably the best in the world in terms of quality of players, exposure and being a full-time professional. I’ve always wanted to play overseas and play at the highest level I can with the best of the best.

“It’s crunch time as to what direction [the W-League] wants to go as a league. There needs to be big, big investment if they want to seriously compete with the top leagues in the world. It will continue to be hard to compete against the European leagues when they offer full time professional competitions, wages and are attracting the best players in the world. 

“The W-League needs to be extended to a full home and away fixture at least; our best players need to be playing games at the highest level for as many games as possible.”

Given challenges facing women’s football in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the obvious solution for Mastrantonio is redefining the W-League competition as a springboard to elevate young players to top-level European football.

“I think [the W-League] will have to transition into more of a development league for the next few years, which I think will help the next generation greatly.

“As the W-League seasons are still quite short, there is only a small window for developing players to get game time. So, I think the departure of established players will open up the opportunity for younger players. 

“In saying that, the quality still needs to remain high for this to be beneficial.”

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, investment in the W-League could prove challenging in Australia, as the football ecosystem contracts, but Mastrantonio suggests the game could capitalise on Australia and New Zealand securing the FIFA Women’s World Cup hosting rights in 2023.

“It’s a hard and scary time for everyone involved in football and especially women’s football, but I think we can see the FFA is really backing women’s football with their efforts to secure hosting the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup,” Mastrantonio said.

“Now is the time to invest in all levels, from grassroots to the W-League, which will in turn develop world class Matildas players. With the hype leading into the World Cup in the next few years, now is the time more than ever and I’m hoping to see everything grow and expand massively.”