Natasha Dowie and the W-League players 'stuck in limbo'

This was not the way Natasha Dowie expected her W-League season to end. After five campaigns with Melbourne Victory, the former England striker and Golden Boot winner will now join the growing number of Australian players who have made moves to Europe during the league's off-season. Whether she gets there, though, is a different story.

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As the coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves across sport, the W-League has been one of the few women's football leagues that has remained standing. This past weekend, two semi-finals were played in front of fans before the Australian government's ban on events with over 500 people came into effect. Yet, despite growing external pressure to call the games off, the Victory kept themselves focused on the job at hand.

"To be honest, there was no talk about it [in the group]," Dowie told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I personally didn't feel anxious at all. The whole week leading up to it was really quite a normal week: we were doing the same things, we were training at the same location, pretty much nothing changed. The only thing we got told is that at the game, we obviously weren't allowed to have contact with the fans and then there might not be any handshakes. So to us, the extent of it, we didn't feel like it affected us too much; it was just like a normal game."

Victory lost 1-0 to Sydney FC, the second year running that they've been bundled out at the semi-final stage. It wasn't the send-off Dowie would have wanted on the field, but the more difficult situation has been trying to handle what's happening off it.

"It was really disappointing the way it just came to an end like that," she said. "But then you have to put things into perspective as well, and with everything that's going on in the world at the minute, you do kind of need to think 'well, it is just a football game.'

"But I haven't been able to say goodbye to any of my teammates or coaching staff. It's been pretty much 'no contact with anyone,' so we lost the game, and then that's the end of the season; no end-of-season awards, no nothing. That's been tough because you spend three or four months with these people and then you're probably not going to see them again, maybe forever. So that was a tough end."

Dowie, like many of her W-League colleagues, now faces an uncertain future. On Wednesday morning, the Australian government announced unprecedented travel warnings, upgrading its Smart Traveller guidelines from "reconsider your need to travel" to "do not travel" to any country in the world. The measures are necessary to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, but it leaves female footballers in an especially precarious situation. As the 2019-20 W-League season is scheduled to end this weekend, several Australian and international players must now make their way to clubs and leagues overseas to continue earning a living.

Of the players who are to take part in the upcoming Grand Final between Sydney FC and Melbourne City, at least 17 of them are meant to travel abroad after their W-League contracts end on March 22. Almost all of these players are expected to fly out to the United States or Europe -- the two new epicentres of the pandemic -- within 48 hours of the final whistle. But the Australian government's upgraded travel warning means that W-League players are now caught between contracts and between continents, uncertain of what their next step should be.

"You feel like you're in a bit of a horror movie. Total madness," Dowie said. "We're stuck in limbo because we're meant to be flying back on the 23rd, but then we're like, 'do we stay here longer? Or do we go home? We've got some people telling us 'stay out there as long as you can because Australia seems to be one of the safer places,' but then other people are saying 'just get home and then you can isolate yourself for a couple of weeks, but then at least you're home.'

"And then it's like, can we even afford to stay out here? Because the club only pay [for accommodation] until a certain date. So, do we pack? Do we not pack? Jeff [Hopkins, Victory's W-League head coach] is having phone calls daily at the club and keeping us in the loop because we don't even know if there's a problem with going home. I don't know if they've shut off borders. But if we stay out here longer, they might stop people from leaving Australia. It's madness."

These questions speak to a wider anxiety that many female footballers feel in trying to pursue a professional career. Most women's club contracts last for a single season, meaning there is little contractual support offered by clubs outside of individual season windows. And given the unsustainable salaries most leagues offer, hundreds of women must compete in multiple leagues back-to-back in order to make ends meet. Disruptions to that cycle, such as the current global pandemic, could curtail a player's entire career.

When asked on Monday whether the onus was on those players in limbo to figure out their next steps themselves, Football Federation Australia's Head of Leagues Greg O'Rourke said: "I wouldn't say they're on their own. The players themselves have a network -- whether they be here in their W-League club or if they're part of their national team setup to talk to the doctors, as well as the club they're going to [...] they will draw upon all the resources that they could to make common-sense and safe decisions about their travel once the W-League is finished."

But the government's travel warning throws a spanner into these works. On Tuesday night, when asked whether these players were being discouraged from going overseas to fulfil their club obligations, FFA CEO James Johnson said: "They're allowed to leave as any human is; that's a right of the person. But we'll certainly, together with the PFA [players' union], ensure we're giving all our players the right advice. There are obviously risks in going to the United States at the moment because of the levels of the virus, but even here now in Australia, the levels are increasing. We'll be asking the players to take all the precautions; we'll be giving them the right advice together with the PFA, but ultimately the player needs to make their own assessment on that point."

It's been reported that the PFA are working through each W-League player's situation on a case-by-case basis, including offering them at-home health, nutrition, and well-being programs, as well as connecting them with fitness, medical, and mental health experts to assist them during this uncertain time in their lives and careers. And after Wednesday morning's travel warning upgrade, FFA is working more diligently to keep players both in Australia and overseas informed about their options.

"I think if we were to stay here, it would be pretty much just keep your head down, carry on doing your individual training, and try to live as normal a life as possible," Dowie said.

Though what a normal life will look like for these players in the weeks and months ahead is anybody's guess.