The stewards got it into the right form at the right time and there is hope that Sam Kerr and her mates can move on.
Never before has there been so much pre-tournament excitement for the Australia national football team. A World Cup tournament on home soil, a team that boasts a golden generation of players and an encouraging streak of continued good results has fueled interest and heightened anticipation in a country where football has traditionally struggled to find its relevance.
The team have raised expectations, led by their outstanding captain, Sam Kerr, but that wasn’t always the case with Tony Gustafsson at the helm. Defensive weaknesses bedeviled the coach’s first period, and despite his fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, the disastrous exit from the quarter-finals of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup raised questions about the Swede’s ability to mount a credible World Cup challenge.
Gustafsson sought to transcend the ‘give the ball to Kerr’ mentality and sought to avoid over-reliance on his star striker, giving space to team players whenever possible, though not always with great success. Their 7-0 defeat to Spain in June last year marked rock bottom after sending an inexperienced side into chaos in Wolva. But the benefits of this policy are finally coming: since then, Matildas has won eight wins out of nine, including victories against the top ten teams from Sweden, Spain and England, and not always with a full squad.
“Sometimes you’re not as bad as they say when you lose, but you’re also not as good as they say when you win,” said Gustafsson after fielding an injury-flawed side in a 2-0 win over England in April. . “We know that on any given day we may not have the best team, but we can beat the best teams.” With mixed results giving way to a strong run of results, Australia may be able to find the perfect timing for their run.
The charismatic Tony Gustafsson arrived in the hot seat in January 2021 with a big smile and an odd disposition that belied his reputation for tactical cunning. His work as an assistant to Gil Ellis was instrumental in the United States’ dual World Cup victories in 2015 and 2019, and since taking over as head coach of the Matildas, he hasn’t been afraid to experiment tactically. At the Tokyo Olympics he played three fullbacks, with some success, but since then he seems to have settled on a more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. “There’s a lot of potential here, they’ve shown their qualities, but I also think I can take them together to the next level,” he said when accepting the job.
There is little, if any, praise to describe the goal-scoring phenom Sam Kerr is. The forward is in fantastic form after a season packed with goals and double wins with Chelsea, where he also picked up a string of individual honours. He holds Australia’s record for international goals – his 63 assisted them in defeating England in their 120th international tournament this year – and given his importance to Matildas, there is a sense he hopes will be a nation in light of this tournament. “One thing is her individual quality as a player, but more important to this team is what she brings as a person and how she brings it,” Gustafsson said of the inspiring captaincy. “It’s unbelievable.”
In a squad of big names playing in European leagues, Cortnee Vine is one of the few to earn her status through her domestic league performances. The Sydney FC winger’s rise to prominence has been meteoric and although she still lacks a starting spot, she has the potential to make an impact off the bench with her direct running and ability to take on defenders.
did you know?
Matilda could be called Soccertoos. Having previously been known as the Female Socceroos, in 1995 SBS broadcaster decided to hold a contest to decide on a new name for the women’s national team. In addition to Soccertoos and Matildas, the shortlist included Blue Flyers, Waratahs, and Lorikeets. However, viewers chose Matilda — a nod to Waltzing’s Song of Matilda — and the rest, as they say, is history.
History of women’s football in Australia
Soccer is hugely popular with women and girls in Australia, but the high levels of participation still don’t translate into a comparable number of spectators in the domestic league (although this year’s final broke an attendance record). The national team is another matter and the interest in the Matildas is at least equal to that of their male counterparts, the Socceroos. Holding the World Cup on home soil has heightened the public eye, and referees are keen to talk about the lasting legacy they believe the tournament will leave in the match, against the backdrop of the continued rise of women’s sport.
A realistic goal for the World Cup?
“I think there are many teams that can win the World Cup,” England coach Sarina Wegman said this year. Australia is one of them. Gustafsson’s side certainly have the potential to make a huge splash in their home country, and with Kerr, they have a player who can take it all if you prove it. However, despite their improvements, this group is still unpredictable and the way they handle open night nerves could set the direction for the rest of the campaign.
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