Two-hundred Australians ply their trade in association football leagues around the world.
- Ambitious Australian footballers find challenges overseas and, in some cases, success
- One young Australian has established herself this year in a Scottish league beginning to embrace professionalism
- Another Australian in his prime has carved out a rewarding career in Asia
That number has barely moved since the glory days of Harry Kewell scoring goals for Leeds United alongside Mark Viduka in the early 2000s, according to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA).
But the makeup of players is changing, with growing opportunity in the women’s game and in Asia.
“Even as the A-League has emerged and gotten stronger since its inception, the number of players playing overseas has pretty consistently been around 200,” PFA chief executive Beau Busch said.
Yet players’ motivations are varied.
“What we’ve always seen is there’s a variety of players going overseas for the lifestyle experience, like many people do, to live overseas and engage,” Busch said.
“Then there’s people going over to try to play at a higher level … and there’s some people who are probably doing a bit of both.”
The ambition is not universal. While around one in two A-League Men players from the 2020/21 season want to continue playing locally, among women the numbers are different: almost three in four A-League Women players would like to stay playing in Australia.
Ironically then, for young women with aspirations of representing Australia, a move overseas is becoming mandatory.
The right environment
Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson urged Australian-based players in March to find a place they could play in the long A-League Women off-season.
“I do think the ones that haven’t signed somewhere else yet are going to have to ask themselves ‘what do I need to do to play at the highest level possible and to reach my full potential?’,” he said.
“Because if they are stuck here from now up until the next elite season, what kind of development environment are they going to be in?”
As professionalism in the global women’s game expands, more opportunities are emerging.
“What we’ve seen in more recent years is more female players are going overseas, and that will start to rise over the next few years,” Busch said.
Scotland’s women’s league is moving towards full-time professionalism, led by major clubs Glasgow City, Rangers and Celtic.
The latter is where 20-year-old Jacynta Galabadaarachchi has found success this season after a difficult couple of years.
She originally left Australia to sign for West Ham in England, before moving to Italy with Napoli. It was a challenging period finding the right environment, made worse by being restricted from traveling back to Australia during the pandemic.
“It was probably that hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, being away from my family for almost two years before I went home again,” she said.
“There were times where I would call my parents upset, they kept telling me ‘just come home’, but I knew once I came home I probably wouldn’t want to go back.
“I just told them, ‘I’ve just go to stick it through’, and eventually I knew I was going to go home for Christmas, so that made things a lot easier.”
Growing up in Canberra, Aaron Evans was a solid young player who couldn’t quite latch onto an A-League club.
But as an 18-year-old, he was offered an opportunity that would change his life.
“I was just hungry to be a professional footballer anywhere in the world, all through my young career,” he said.
“[Former Socceroo and Evans’s then-agent] Kaz Patafta came to me on the Sunday and said, ‘look I’ve got a professional contract for you, but the catch is you’ve got to be there on Wednesday’.
“I was sitting there and said ‘absolutely, no worries, let’s go’.
Evans has spent almost a decade in Asia, and made a name for himself playing in Indonesia’s Liga 1 competition. It’s the top league in the world’s fourth-most populous nation, and one that loves football, with some games attracting crowds as large as 70,000 people.
Nobody has played more minutes than the 27-year-old since the league was relaunched five years ago.
Evans said the benefits provided to him by his club, including living and travel expenses, and endorsements, allowed him to live comfortably and plan for his post-playing days.
PFA research has found the average salary for Australian footballers in Asia — even in developing Asian leagues like India — is higher than that in the A-League.
But while Evans is comfortable financially, he too has had struggles.
“But I’m an extremely positive guy, and I tend to look at the positives even in a negative situation.”
While Evans has had a good experience in Asia, Busch has observed others aren’t so lucky.
Last financial year the PFA recovered more than $2 million in outstanding salaries for players, a problem more intense in developing leagues.
“There’s a wonderful opportunity to see the world — the growth of Asia is really important for offering employment opportunity for players — but it comes with a heap of challenges,” Busch said.
Having navigated some of the challenges of playing overseas, both Evans and Galabadaarachchi have achieved at least one of their goals: become proven performers at overseas professional clubs.
“In 2019 I was playing from PSM Makassar and we made the final of the Indonesian Cup,” Evans said.
“I scored one goal and got one assist and we ended up winning the cup, the first cup they’d won in 17 years.
“The reception they gave me, the way that they treated me, I just turned into an overnight superstar I guess for that club and for that city.”
Galabadaarachchi has just won the Scottish PFA’s young player of the year and Celtic’s player of the year awards, and was nominated as one of the competition’s top four players by her peers.
“The PFA one I was more shocked from because I wasn’t expecting it at all,” she said.
“I was really grateful that the players respect me and think of me as one of the best players in the league, it’s really amazing.”
Both are out of contract this off-season, but are optimistic about their futures.
“I really enjoy Celtic, how I get treated here, and in the team, the football that we play, I think it’s important for me at this time to be playing constantly,” Galabadaarachchi said.
“Celtic has treated me really well, my contract’s up in June but maybe, potentially re-signing … I’m thinking about it at the moment.”
Evans is looking forward to at least one more contract in Asia, but he’s also got another item on his bucket list.
“Because I’m an Australian and I haven’t played in the A-League yet, I really am hoping and looking forward to playing in the A-League one day,” he said.
The final regular season round of the A-League Men’s competition is this weekend.