Never Say Die – The case for the Matildas
Monday, 3 July 2023
Could this be the year of the Matildas?
They’ve never gone beyond the quarter-finals at the World Cup, but this time hopes are high that the ‘Golden Generation of Matildas’ along with some exciting young talent can jet propel Australia to a tournament to remember this summer on home soil.
After two years of experimentation by head coach Tony Gustavsson, which has seen more players handed first caps than in the previous 23 years of this century, a strong settled squad with depth has been put together for this, the third year of his tenure.
It’s been a tough road to get to this stage, and one which has seen several fans call for Gustavsson’s head along the way (“The clown” being one of the politer forms of abuse hurled his way), but the doubters are now won over.
As with any form of experimentation, for every young player who performed brilliantly at international level, there were several who struggled, and results suffered. It coincided with a sustained period of friendlies against the world’s top nations that, come July will have seen the Matildas play every single one of the top 10 countries in FIFA’s women’s rankings at least once.
“To be the best, we have to play the best regularly,” Gustavsson told me at one of his early media conferences.
When it has really mattered in that period though, Australia did step it up. They played some thrilling football at the Tokyo Olympics on their way to a best ever fourth place finish.
Conversely, there was a desperately disappointing AFC Asian Women’s Cup (the continent’s version of the Euros) in early 2022. Despite a record breaking 18-0 win over Indonesia in their opening group game, Australia turned a succession of performances that saw them fail to turn total domination of territory and possession into goals. This culminated with a frustrating quarter-final exit to eventual runners-up South Korea.
But since October 2022, experimentation has been over, and the best of the youngsters that thrived in the opportunities afforded to them by Gustavsson have meshed with the experienced spine of the team. This has led to a run of form which has seen Australia win six of their last seven matches – a spell which includes wins over England, Sweden, and Spain.
Last spring’s ACL injury to Ellie Carpenter could have spelt disaster for the Matildas. However, thanks to Gustavsson’s experimentation, it was never a concern. Young South Australian starlet Charli Grant had been blooded previously at right back and now came into her own.
Grant for me, has always been one of the most talented players of her generation. The 21 year-old bosses the right hand side of the defence and is capable of tracking two players at once before using her outstanding ability to read the game to make the right call time after time to close down danger before it eventuates. Whilst not in possession of the rapid pace to get forward that Carpenter does, Grant offers more than the Lyon player in terms of defensive qualities. Her ability to also play left back for her loan side Vittsjö in Sweden means that in the April international window, Gustavsson fielded both Carpenter and Grant in the same team, and it was one heck of a defensive duo who provided threats coming forward on either flank.
Host nation advantage is not to be sniffed at either. Think of the support the Lionesses had here last summer – The Matildas have been adored for years back home. In a country where football is only the fifth most watched sport in terms of spectators, they were voted the nation’s favourite national side before COVID – beating the national men’s Rugby League side, the Wallabies men’s Rugby Union team and the Australian men’s Cricket squad – a staggering feat.
The success of the Socceroos in reaching the Second round of the Qatar men’s World Cup last December brought raucous scenes on Australian streets. That will be absolutely nothing compared to what the Matildas will do to the nation should they go deep into the tournament. They are icons and deeply loved by their nation.
Then there is the famed Never Say Die spirit that the team trademark. That astounding Olympic Games clash with Team GB was a prime example of that, as was their semi-final with the USA that followed it and, painfully for Lionesses fans, their win over the Lionesses at Brentford back in April.
One thing that they will want to avoid though is a penalty shootout. You think the England men’s football team has a dire record in spot kicks? The Matildas can match it.
Defeats in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics to Brazil, Denmark at the 2017 Algarve Cup, and Norway at the last 16 stage of the 2019 World Cup still cause painful thoughts and the “what might have been” theories.
If The Matildas can defeat Canada in the group game that will likely decide who takes the top spot, Australia will be confident of a minimum achievement of making the quarter-finals. Lose that game with the Olympic champions, and a showdown with England in Brisbane in front of 55,000 fans beckons in the last 16.
However, as the Matildas are unbeaten in their last three games against the Lionesses/Team GB, maybe that isn’t an encounter for them to flinch at?