As Sydney FC’s W-League squad started pre-season training in November, one of its newest recruits was half a world away, trapped in a tiny Portuguese town after being stonewalled by her first overseas club and unable to find a flight home.
This is not how former Brisbane Roar striker Allira Toby thought her first football season abroad would go.
After her original plan to play in Spain was scuppered due to coronavirus, Toby’s agent informed her in late October that one of Portugal’s top women’s clubs – F.C. Famalicão, in the country’s north-west – had scouted and offered her a one-year contract.
Toby was on a flight within the week.
“It’s my first time actually being in a European country or playing overseas, which has been really cool,” she told The World Game.
“I just waltzed in and that was it. I didn’t even have to do COVID tests. I landed and started training the next day.
“I’ve played one game, and it was actually against a Spanish team in the top tier; we did a road-trip to Spain and had a friendly there. To drive four hours and be in another country, just casually, was freaking cool.
“I like the way Europeans play. I think it makes me want to get better with my own game and implement how they play here into my own style, which not a lot of players get to experience, so I’m pretty lucky in terms of that.”
Toby is speaking from the top floor of the house she shares with three of her team-mates. Behind her, a bright yellow apartment complex glows in the morning sun. Somewhere nearby, a rooster crows so loudly I can hear it through the Zoom call.
“This goddamn rooster,” Toby says, laughing. “It’s in one of the houses next to me and, dead-set, it’s the only thing I hear almost 24 hours a day. The first couple of weeks I was here, every single morning, it would wake me up at five o’clock. That thing just does not shut up.
“But it’s been good here. There’s two tiers in the house – I’m upstairs with a Brazilian girl who speaks a little bit of English, so we can have a conversation and I can at least understand what she’s saying to me. Downstairs, there’s two Spanish girls who don’t speak a drop of English, but they’ve been lovely. We’ll chat through Google translate, which is fun.
“Another [team-mate] actually does speak quite good English, so she took me under her wing and showed me around. We’ve been into Porto and done a lot of things. It’s nice to have someone who speaks English because it was pretty daunting [coming here] knowing I don’t speak the language.
“It’s a very isolating situation. For the first few weeks, it was so hard because I was like, ‘I don’t like this, it’s so unnatural to me.’ I was so out of my comfort zone; I was so home-sick to start with, not because I didn’t have any friends or because no one wanted me here, it’s because we literally couldn’t have a conversation.
“The coach doesn’t understand English, either, so he’d come in for team chats or before training and say a bit of a spiel and I’d just be standing there like, ‘what’s going on?’. Even in training drills, I’d just stand there and wait for someone to show me what was happening. That was hard.
“But it’s all part of the experience. At least I can say I came here, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language, but it was still such a fun time. I’m glad I did it, I’m glad I’m here, and I’ve made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, which is the most important bit.”
Although she’s speaking from her kitchen in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Toby is talking in the past tense because she and the club have reached an impasse with her contract.
“I was a few weeks in, maybe a month, and they turned around and said, ‘you’re not required here anymore, we’re going to terminate your contract on a clause that’s in there.’ But the clause didn’t apply to me because it wasn’t a two-year season contract; I only had a one-year one, so it didn’t apply to me. But they’re going off the basis that it does.
“They’ve been ignoring communication from my manager. None of them speak English, so it’s been a bit of a fight to even understand what’s going on. When it all happened, they didn’t even tell me; they went through the Portuguese agent here who scouted me for the club, so they went through her to tell my agent, and then my agent had to call and tell me.
“Even to this day, the club hasn’t sat me down and explained the situation – they’re pretty much ignoring the fact that they’re not honouring my contract by saying there actually isn’t one in place here. It’s so crazy.
“I’m still living in the accommodation they’ve given me. I’m not even a five-minute walk to the fields. I’m not allowed to train with the team, which has been very frustrating. So I’ve just been trying to do my own stuff, which is hard because I don’t have access to facilities or a field, so I’ve just been doing road-runs and all that, which is scary because European drivers are lunatics; I’m surprised I haven’t been hit by a car yet.”
As if contract chaos wasn’t enough, Toby also suspects she caught COVID-19 after coming into contact with a team-mate who’d tested positive.
“I got pretty sick for two weeks, but I’m okay now, thank god,” she said. “But for that two-week period, I was pretty much just in bed. I obviously had symptoms, but I thought it was the flu. I had to get a test just in case I travelled last weekend and it came back ‘inconclusive.’ So, I probably had it and just didn’t know.
“I still go and have lunch with the girls after training – they do breakfast but I haven’t been going to that lately because I thought I had coronavirus – but up until then, I was doing literally everything with the team except training and playing. I’d even go to their away games and watch them.
“Over here, they’re so chill. COVID here at the moment is mind-blowingly bad. It literally gets worse every day. Last week or the week before, I’m pretty sure we hit 5,000 new cases. In a day. There are some restrictions in place, like we can’t be on the road between 10pm and 5am on a weekday, and then on weekends you can’t be on public roads from 1pm. You have to wear a mask everywhere, all that stuff.
“But people are still living life. They don’t care, they’re just walking around, there’s no social distancing, everything’s still operational: cafes, restaurants. Everyone’s still working. They won’t go into lockdown, I don’t think. It’s way past the point of fixing it, that’s how bad it is at the moment.”
Despite her tumultuous introduction to European club football, Toby is still committed to returning – with national team caps in her sights.
“I definitely want to come back to Europe and play. Me coming here was to develop so that I can hopefully put my best foot forward for the Matildas, especially with a massive few years coming up. Who wouldn’t want to play at a World Cup at their home?
“Being here has opened my eyes to a whole different perspective on things, especially in terms of how good Australian women footballers have it. The structure in Australia for women is so much better. We’re lucky that we have a minimum wage and we’re lucky that we’ve got people like the PFA to help us with whatever we need. But over here, that’s almost non-existent.
“Yes, there’s still a long way to go in Australia, but we’re also ahead in so many other ways. I don’t think people understand that. For me, that’ll help me coming back; it makes you appreciate the little things that we take for granted where a lot of people don’t have that overseas.
“I’m 26 but I’ve grown up so much in the short time that I’ve been here, as a player and as a person. It’s given me so much more persistence knowing that things have been shit the past few months, but it’s okay. I can take so many positives away from it, then I can come home and be like, ‘okay, this happened, but I’m better for it. I’m 100 percent better for it’.
“And I will not miss that friggen rooster.”