‘Is this spam?’ the dream email that sent Matildas teenager to Madrid
Like all kids growing up, Alex Chidiac's dream has been to emulate her idols.
"When I was young I just wanted to play in England, Spain or in Italy," she said.
For aspiring Australian footballers, the path to Europe is hardly clear-cut. As a female player, it appears non-existent. For a teenager who's long worshipped French striker Antoine Griezmann, following in his footsteps at Atletico Madrid was only a dream. And, that's why the message that woke her up in the middle of the night last July seemed so surreal.
"I got this email at a ridiculous hour of the night and had a full contract from Atletico Madrid. I called my agent and asked is this spam? I didnt believe it," the midfielder said.
After reading the offer to become the first Australian to play for Atletico Madrid, she flipped the screen over to stare at the iconic celebration of Griezmann, just as she'd done for the last two years with Atletico star printed on her phone cover.
Pinching herself, Chidiac had just become a flag-bearer for Australian women's football within one of the biggest football clubs in the world at the age of 19, signing with Atletico Madrid for up to two years. By her own admission, that role seemed inconceivable to her. However, it wasn't completely by chance.
Chidiac doesn't fit the mould of a typical Australian player. Pace isn't her leading attribute, nor is height. She's far from the most physically commanding player and while combative, she isn't a ball-winner. Instead, her gifts lie with the ball at her feet. She has a cushioning first touch, quick feet, captivating vision on the field, a good eye for goal and a better one to spot a pass. Knowing these strengths, she looked to Europe to further her development instead of the usual destination of the United States.
"I just wanted to go overseas and be in a league that runs long enough so I can play all year around," she said. "I was really interested in Spain."
After a few phone calls from an agent, her skill set attracted the attention of the Spanish champions of the last two years. Immediately upon her arrival at their training base at the old Vicente Calderon stadium did she realise the technical step-up she faced having come from Australia.
"If you watch men's football and Spanish teams, its exactly like that with the women and especially at Atletico," Chidiac said. "People dont know how good it is over there. Australia could learn a lot from that style of play."
In part, that's why she's there. Her best chance of making the 2019 Women's World Cup squad in a Matildas midfield that boasts the likes of Emily van Egmond, Elise Kellond Knight and Tameka Butt was to offer something different to what Australia produces so well.
"Weve got a very physical game, a lot of pace and good players but sometimes we dont keep the ball as well as we could. If we adapted a bit of that with our style of play, we could be unstoppable," she said.
Already she's on the path to offering that. Coached by former La Liga team analyst Jose Luis Sanchez, Chidiac has been put through the rigorous tactical and technical demands at Atletico. There, the role as a central midfielder is more fluid yet critical. No drill is repeated in training, every session is tailored differently and no instructions are offered in English.
"Its just so different. Everyone is expected to have this level of ability where youre able to keep the ball in ridiculously tight situations," she said.
As the six appearances, two goals and assist next to her name attests, she's not just surviving in the Primera Division but flourishing. On Saturday afternoon at Penrith Stadium against Chile, fans will get a further glimpse as to why. For Chidiac, however, it will be just one more step towards France next June, where she could realise another dream that once seemed so far fetched.
"Thats what I am hoping for," she said. "Im hoping to bring something different. Im not a pace player, Im not able to run down and beat a bunch of players. I am technical and skilful. If I can work at what Im good at, I can take it to another level and bring something to this team. Thats what Im already doing in Spain."
Dominic Bossi is a football reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.