It started – as it so often does in football – with a single tournament, a single team, a single player.
Alex Chidiac was only 12, but already she knew something special was happening in Germany in 2011. She would wake up in the early hours of the morning, flick the television on to SBS, and nestle into the couch of her Adelaide home. Warmed by cups of tea and the shoulders of her grandma and uncle, the Chidiacs would watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup together – the first women’s football tournament she can remember.
She was a Matildas fan, of course, and watched some of her future team-mates – Melissa Barbieri, Lisa De Vanna, Clare Polkinghorne, Kyah Simon, Caitlin Foord, Sam Kerr – run around on the lush green pitches in Mönchengladbach, Augsburg, and Leverkusen.
But there was one team in particular that caught her eye, one team that shaped the kind of footballer she would become: Nadeshiko Japan.
“I was in awe,” Chidiac told Kick360.
“It was definitely that Japanese style of football – and Spanish – that I fell in love with. It’s something that has driven my moves overseas, trying to go to the places where I love their style and want to work on that and improve in those ways.
“Aya Miyama [midfielder and future captain] was just incredible. Before she retired, I’m pretty sure I sat on the bench for the Matildas against them, and she was playing. As soon as I saw her, I wanted to be exactly like that.
“From that moment onwards, there were all these little signs with Japan. When the Matildas played Japan in Adelaide, they stayed at the hotel my mum works at, and one of the players left their boots behind. So my mum gave me those boots – they were a pair of Mizunos, which is what I wear now – and I remember just hoarding them in my room and being like, ‘these are the best things I’ve ever seen.’
“I’ve had my heart set on Japan ever since.”
Earlier this month, following a successful individual stint with Melbourne City and a re-call to Matildas camp, Chidiac secured her dream move to JEF United in the newly-created WE League, Japan’s first fully-professional women’s league.
“I heard about them starting the WE League back in 2019 and I thought, straight away, ‘I want to be part of that,’” she said.
“When I got back to the W-League, I signed with a new agent and Japan was the first thing we spoke about. It all happened quite quickly, so I’ve known for a while now. As soon as a Japanese club was interested, my heart was set on going there.
“The WE League stands for ‘women’s empowerment league.’ I don’t know too much about it, I just know that they’ve gone through all the right processes to make sure the teams are fully professional. They didn’t just accept all the teams into the league, there are certain minimum standards they have to abide by, which is why I think it’s going to be a very successful league moving forward; they have all those right structures in place from the get-go and they really want to hero women’s football in Japan.
“It’s really exciting to be part of it because they’ve always had such an amazing national team, so to be able to have a professional league for them now is incredible. For other players, as well, I think they’re definitely going to want to come from around the world to play in the league.”
Chidiac is not the first Australian woman to play in Japan. She follows a handful of others including Polkinghorne, Foord, Katrina Gorry, Tameka Yallop, Elise Kellond-Knight, Ash Sykes, and Sunni Hughes.
What’s different about Chidiac’s move, though, is how heavily she is bucking the trend of her international team-mates. While her move to Atletico Madrid in 2018 opened the floodgates for senior and aspiring Matildas finding opportunities in Europe, the 22-year old has decided her best football might instead develop closer to home, particularly after her difficult time in Spain.
“The main reason why I left Spain was just being injured – and that injury was not getting better at all,” she said.
“I wasn’t getting the care that I needed. Luckily, when I came to Melbourne City, they helped me out so much; I had all the support I needed in Melbourne to get back on my feet and playing again.
“Even once I was back from injury in Spain, I think I got a total of nine minutes in six months. It was tough, especially as I wasn’t new at the club anymore and I just didn’t see myself being able to break into the team with the amount of internationals they kept bringing in. So it was a mixture of a few things that weren’t adding up in the way I would have liked.
“Being able to reset back in Australia before my next move overseas – because I definitely want to stay overseas; as much as I love Australia, I do want to keep experiencing new places, especially when I’m young – was important. But the plan was to always go back out there if it was the right fit, and I’m very fortunate that the right fit came along very early on and I’ve been able to go for it.”
But the football itself is often just one factor in a modern player’s decisions to move abroad; life off the field can be just as powerful a drawcard for professional athletes. For Chidiac, having experienced the ups and downs of Spain, she’s now looking forward to getting to know the footballing nation she has admired since she was a kid – the nation that inspired her to pursue it as a career – while also reminding other Australian players that Europe is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to their footballing futures.
“Every Japanese person I’ve met is so lovely and I’m really interested in learning about their culture there,” she said.
“I’m really trying to learn Japanese; I’ve been trying for quite some time now, throughout the W-League season, too. Hopefully that helps me when I go there. But from every interaction I’ve had with the club, they’re making a huge effort to help me out and organise uni students to teach me the language, they have people constantly keeping me informed with what’s happening.
“The coach doesn’t speak English but they put on a whole slideshow presentation for me to welcome me to the club. All my team-mates and even the JEF fans have been messaging me in Japanese, it’s just adorable.
“I’ve heard the food is incredible, too; it’s a super beautiful place. I’d love to just really embrace being in Japan, living like a local. Every country I go to, I want to make an effort to be part of what they have there, so I’m looking forward to everything.
“I know that everyone thinks [the WE League] is a really, really cool thing. I’m pretty sure there will be a few people that are quite interested in coming over, and from what I’ve heard – I’ve spoken to lots of people, men and women, who’ve played in Japan – they love it. I’ve only heard good things, and I think lots of people are going to want to experience that.”