Soccer

As firm friends playing soccer in Spain’s women’s league, Australians Aivi Luik and Alex Chidiac both have a higher honour in their sights – a spot in the Matildas’ World Cup squad. By Robert Kidd.

Soccer duo’s World Cup dream

Alex Chidiac (left) hugs Aivi Luik after a W-League game in 2017.
Credit: Michael Dodge / Getty Images

Aivi Luik and Alex Chidiac may be at opposite ends of their respective careers but they share a dream. The women, who consider each other surrogate sisters, are Australian footballers. Both are midfielders. Both play for clubs in Spain. And both are desperate to play for the Matildas in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The quadrennial tournament, which takes place in France in June and July, is the pinnacle for any footballer. This month, Matildas coach Ante Milicic will reveal his squad of 23 players. Luik, 34, and Chidiac, 20, are not guaranteed starters for their country. But both have recently received call-ups and hope they have done enough to earn a place on the plane to France.

Luik was nine when she fell in love with soccer. It was 1994 and the Women’s World Cup was under way in the United States. In her Gold Coast home, Aivi’s mum, Mare, was cheering on her Swedish homeland.

“Mum let my brother and I stay up sometimes to watch a Sweden game,” Luik tells The Saturday Paper from a cafe in Valencia, the city where her club Levante UD Femenino is based. “I remember the excitement and passion of my mum and how much she wanted the Swedish team to win and the fact it was a world stage and the big event in football. After that World Cup my brother and I always wanted to go and kick the ball around.”

A lover of travel, Luik has enjoyed a nomadic career. She has played for clubs in 10 countries, from the US and Britain to Iceland and Ukraine. In Australia, she has won the W-League four times, including three in a row with Melbourne City.

“For the last two or three years I’ve wanted to play in Spain because the league has just been getting better and better,” Luik says. “The professional clubs on the men’s side have been taking more of an interest in women’s football and have seen how good it is and can be.”

Though she’d rather not, Luik knows she must start thinking about what comes next.

“I dread the day, it’s even hard to say it, that my football career’s over because I feel like I’m going to be stuck in a nine-to-five in one place and I’m just not going to be able to cope. I’m sure if you talk to any athlete, if they could they would do this for the rest of their life.

“It sounds a bit cliché, but as I’ve gotten older, every year I feel more and more blessed to be doing what I’m doing,” Luik says.

One night last June, Alex Chidiac rolled over in bed to check the time on her phone. It was 1am.

“I saw an email from my agent and opened it up and thought, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t real’,” she says. “So I left it until the next day and my agent messaged me and said, ‘Did you get the email?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? That was real? Alright, I can freak out now.’ ”

The email was a one-year contract with Atlético de Madrid Femenino, one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

Keen to play overseas, Chidiac had asked Luik if the older player’s agent could help.

“Out of nowhere, Atlético came up with an offer. I couldn’t believe it. I’m a big football fan so Atlético is a dream,” Chidiac says. “Obviously with the World Cup coming up I had quite a few people telling me it was a bit of a risk to go now, but I was always going to go. There was no way I was going to pass that up.”

Chidiac arrived in Spain’s capital last August, a month after Luik signed for Levante in Valencia.

She was part of the squad for Atlético’s match against Barcelona in March. The clash drew a European record crowd of 60,739 for a women’s league match.

“I was only on the field for the warm-up but it was electric in the stadium,” Chidiac says. “The result didn’t go our way but it was just a massive thing for women’s football in general. The girls who played said it’s just such a good feeling to finally feel recognised.”

It is a long way from the backyard of her grandmother’s house in Adelaide, where Chidiac first kicked a ball around. At just 13, Chidiac was called up to the national Under 17 squad.

“Football’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do so I was going to make it happen no matter what,” she says. “It wasn’t if, it was more how am I going to make it happen.”

Both players were picked for the Matildas’ recent Cup of Nations campaign and Luik was called up for the team’s most recent match, against the US. It seems a positive sign for the World Cup. But Luik has been around long enough to know football can be fickle, and a coach’s whim or a bad tackle can change things in an instant.

She was injured a day before the qualifying matches for the 2016 Olympics and wasn’t selected for the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

“The toughest was the first World Cup I missed out on in 2011. I genuinely thought, and a few other people did too, that I was going to make it. So that was a bit of a shock,” she says.

“It’s kind of like when you’re dating someone and all of a sudden they say, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ There’s shock and heartbreak and tears … After that I was always hoping and trying and putting in 100 per cent but I was a little more guarded. Just like with a relationship – once you’ve felt heartbreak, you’re a little more reserved.”

Luik has learnt how to handle the setbacks and is trying not to think of the World Cup and how selection would fulfil a childhood dream.

“It would be amazing and it would mean…” She stops and thinks. Of her mum caring for her when she was bedridden after a double hamstring operation. Of her dad driving her countless kilometres to and from training. Of her brother, Lee, who was teammate and opponent in those first kickarounds as a kid. She blinks away the tears. “It would mean a lot.”

Chidiac knows there will be tears if she gets the call to go to France. “I’m a bit of a sook and my first Under 17 camp I was crying because of how happy I was to be there. Same for the Under 20s and then same with Matildas,” she says, rating her chances of a call-up at 50/50.

“Watching on TV, you just want to be there, you want to be involved in it and you see the emotion on everyone’s faces singing the national anthem. You can just feel it,” she says. “It would mean so much, not only to me but to my family and friends who have supported me throughout everything. My parents have been so good with letting me chase my dream from the beginning. It would be so good to be able to give something back to them through a World Cup.”

Chidiac and Luik first met at Melbourne City, four years ago. There have been plenty of pranks and laughs since and the pair have faced similar situations in Spain, sharing struggles with the Spanish language and not playing as regularly as they would have liked.

Competition in the Matildas midfield is fierce and there is a chance one of the pair will make it to France and the other will not.

“I’d be ecstatic for her,” Luik says without hesitation. “It would be as if my real sister made it – I’d be super happy for her. I hope she does. Whether it happens this time around or in another four years, she will go to a World Cup and she will very much deserve it.”

Chidiac doesn’t hesitate either.

“Aivi’s been my sister for four years now. She’s such a good friend and a good person, she’s the perfect role model,” she says. “I’m going to keep pushing no matter what and I’ll make sure my time comes, but for Aivi, she deserves it, she’s been through it all already.

“I want her to be in that team almost as much as I want to be in that team. If I don’t make the team, I’ll be okay with it, as long as she makes it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Shared goals". Subscribe here.

Robert Kidd
is a freelance journalist based in Valencia, Spain.