2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup: From Aussie Gus to Teacher Tony

Matildas manager Tony Gustavsson after their clash with the USA in late 2021. Picture: Izhar Khan

A strong leader inspires, motivates, reflects and is self aware.

It is these qualities possessed by current Matildas coach and teacher by trade, Tony Gustavsson which gives the women’s national team a bright outlook as they prepare for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup commencing this week and the Women’s World Cup in 2023, hosted by Australia and New Zealand for the very first time in both nations’ histories. 

With the anticipation and excitement around the Women’s Asian Cup 2022, given its significance leading to the biggest football event ever on home soil next year, Gustavsson is under no illusions as to just how important results are to maintain the respect of the code’s fans across the country.

He discusses the many factors at play including what the team needs to focus on to achieve the success they are capable of. 

The recent Tokyo Olympics Matildas games smashed local TV ratings being the highest watched female team sporting event in Australian history. 

When asked if that has been a motivator at training for the players to give extra at the upcoming competition, beginning on January 20, Gustavsson is emphatic in his answer. 

“For sure. They have said how much that support meant for them during the tournament at the Olympics and probably one of the key reasons why we managed to get the best result ever in a tournament,” he told The Inner Sanctum.

“They felt the support, even though people weren’t physically in the stands, they really felt the support and I’m certain they’re going to feel the same thing going into this tournament, the (Women’s) Asian Cup and then I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like come World Cup on home soil, it’s going to be a festival around the whole country I think, where everyone is going to be included.”

A festival it will be, with preparations for the main event 18 months away already in full swing, through FIFA to local organisers.

When asked if hosting the Women’s World Cup adds pressure to the occasion, Gustavsson admitted it certainly does.

“Yeah, I think it does but I think it’s also important to differentiate expectations and belief, what I think we are going to feel in the World Cup 2023 is the belief…we’re going to feel the belief from a nation and country of football fans that believe the Matildas can do something amazing,” he said.

“If we can have that belief and support that we can do something… that is going to mean the world to these players.”

There has been much discussion since the squad announcement that the Matildas are in a very good place with a balance of experience and youth.

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There are five current players from the 2010 Women’s Asian Cup Champions roster who will feature in the upcoming tournament including Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon, Tameka Yallop (Butt), Claire Polkinghorne and Lydia Williams. 

When quipped on whether that balance holds the team in good enough stead to win the tournament for the first time since 2010 or if there are too many other factors at play, the Swede answers frankly. 

“I agree that we have a very well balanced team, both in terms of what player types we have,” he said.

“But also, where we have some really experienced players that have been in a pressure cooker before who know what it’s like to be in a tournament and then we combine that with some young, exciting, energising players coming in, wanting to compete for spots and also bring some new qualities into the team, so we have a lot of good game changers there. 

“We also have good depth in some of the positions where we probably need to rotate some in the tournament, to not get fatigued further down the tournament, so I do think we have a good chance. 

“What we spend a lot of time doing though is answering the question, ‘Why haven’t we won it since 2010?’ because obviously it was 11 years ago that we won the title and we want to bring it back home but we need to know why we haven’t succeeded earlier and it’s tough.

“If you look at the stats against Japan, the last 11 years, we’ve only managed to win once and we need to know why that is and come up with a plan (on) how to change that not that just Japan is the key opponent.

“Look at the last Asian Cup with the Thailand game, (they) scored in the last minute 2-2, brought it to extra time…so we need to be humble enough in every game but also ask ourselves the question ‘Why are we better now?’.

“When we have a plan to make some changes that we think could be efficient…but we’ll see when the tournament starts if that’s successful.”

The question most Australian fans are wondering is, is the goal to go one game better than the Tokyo Olympics where the Matildas featured in the semi final, or is it to win the championship? 

“I’m addicted to winning so we’re going to do everything in our power to win each game but take one game at a time and focus on the performance and I think what was really successful and good for us in the Olympics was that we managed to focus on one game, check out from that game, check in for the next game,” he said.

“I think we shouldn’t jump ahead too far now and think about potential quarter finals or semi finals we should just focus on the opening game to start the tournament on our front foot and get a good feeling and then go from there and see how far it takes us.”

Midfielder Clare Wheeler has only recently made her senior international debut in a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland, but has also quickly become a fan favourite.

“She’s ready to play, she’s shown and that’s why she’s selected; based on her performances in our national team environment but also club land,” Gustavsson said.

“That’s what the Matildas is about, there should be room for anyone no matter if you’re young or older, if you’re performing, you’re good enough, the door should be open to represent the Matildas and Clare Wheeler has earned her spot on this roster for sure.”

Undoubtedly, an answer that will be very well received amongst Australian football fans across the nation, given the glimpses of brilliance on display by Wheeler late last year against the USA. 

As witnessed at the Tokyo Olympics, the Matildas are a strong attacking side with the goals flowing freely, 11 in total from six games.

Sam Kerr in action against the USA in late 2021. Picture: Thomas Pombart

With approximately 10 days prep together before the Women’s Asian Cup begins, Gustavsson discusses his main focus in that time leading up to game one on January 21. 

“It’s a very short lead in to the tournament, we have much less time to prep this one than the Tokyo Olympics, I think it’s summarising all the work we’ve done in preparation mode, meaning the September, October, November camps and get very clear on exactly what we want to do and how we want to do it,” he said.

“But then also it’s not just about technical and tactical aspects…also getting the group together to get that feeling of excitement and set a goal, what’s the goal for this tournament, what’s the why behind it and get the motivation to stick to that why as a group.

“We are overloaded with attacking qualities in this national team, even some who haven’t been selected, actually deserve to be selected.”

Finally to update Gustavsson on Australian football culture, he was informed of a significant head coach of the men’s national team who was affectionately referred to as ‘Aussie Guus’ real name, Guus Hiddink, who led Australia to the Germany World Cup in 2006 and took the team to its highest ever place in the prestigious tournament. 

The Swede has won the hearts of many Aussies so far for a number of reasons including his positivity, composure, rawness and taking the women’s national team to the highest place at an Olympics event.

When asked if he aspires to become the next ‘Aussie Gus(tavsson)’, his answer is brutally honest. 

“What I do know is that as the coach, you tend to never be better than the last game, so, if we don’t succeed and get some results and some good performances in this Asian Cup, I’m not sure that popularity is still going to be there, because it’s all about results. I know that,” he said.

“I’ve been in the business for so long so even if I stay composed and positive and do as good as work as possible to get people to feel good and get one day better like I always talk about, at the end of the day I’m going to be judged on results. 

“If I can be a small part of these player’s why, because they have an important why, which is not just about winning games, and that doesn’t mean we don’t try to win…we’re in the business of winning and I’m addicted to winning, but there’s more to it than that, and I hope I can be a small part of that as well.” 

Whilst Australians are a sports loving nation and quite possibly a tough crowd, it’s fair to say Gustavsson has been an integral part of the Matildas recent success thus far with the highest placing in an Olympics tournament and numerous opportunities given to the youth and local female talent in the national football side.

The Matildas open their AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 campaign against Indonesia on January 21, 9.00pm AEDT with the support and belief of a nation firmly behind them. 

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