With the hotly contested tournament rapidly approaching that is the 20th edition of the Asian Football Confederation Women’s Asian Cup, The Commbank Matildas are in for one of the most anticipated tests in their 47-year history.
The competition will present as a precursor to the first ever football World Cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 2023.
The AFC Women’s Asian Cup kicks off on January 20 in Mumbai, India with the eyes of a nation fixed firmly on the green and gold and their preparations for the big dance next year.
The women’s national team were crowned Asian Cup Champions back in 2010 with some of the current playing roster featuring in the victorious side 12 years ago.
Sam Kerr, Lydia Williams, Kyah Simon, Tameka Yallop (Butt) and Claire Polkinghorne all provide experience from the previous triumphant group to also feature in the current squad.
Led by Scottish coach Tom Sermanni in 2010, the current Matildas have Swede Tony Gustavsson at the helm this time around.
The fateful night where the women’s national side prevailed over North Korea in a penalty shoot out, saw a scare in the 73rd minute when the opposition managed a header to equalise, to get past reliable goalkeeper and captain, Melissa Barbieri.
Miraculously the Matildas remained composed, forcing the match into extra time and finally a penalty shoot out where Kyah Simon converted the winning shot to crown Australia as Asian Cup Champions for the first time in history.
Of that heart stopping conceding goal moment, heightened by the pressure of being both shot stopper and captain, Barbieri describes the occasion and how the team went on to win the match.
“I spent a majority of the game trying to keep everyone focused on trying to keep a clean sheet but the thing is that against quality opposition, you know it’s not a given and no matter how hard you try, sometimes they just find an avenue,” Barbieri said.
“But I think in the moment I was saying to the girls it was against the play…they weren’t beating us in any sort of regard so I think I just tried to keep them focussed that we may have just lost the lead but we haven’t lost this game yet…we certainly weren’t being overpowered or over run by them…it was just that they managed to get through.
“I think I was just trying to keep them all positive.”
The Matildas’ third highest goal scorer of all time, Kate Gill, pipped at the post only by current world superstar Sam Kerr and Australian legend Lisa De Vanna, shares her fond memories of playing in the glory years.
When asked what she credits the Matildas’ success to on winning the Asian Cup 12 years ago, Gill reflects.
“It took a lot…for a long time when we moved confederations, we really, really struggled. The powerhouses that were Japan, North Korea at the time, they were beating us a lot,” Gill said.
“We were missing out…Olympic qualifications, fortunately we didn’t miss out on World Cup qualifications but it was a really challenging environment to move from Oceania into Asia from a women’s football perspective, so for a long time we had to refine the way we played the game and understand how we needed to play to be able to beat the Asian nations.
“We were still developing our type of football and how we wanted to play and we’ve always been a very physical, fit nation and we relied on that but we needed to get better technically and I think tactically as well so we were lucky we had a coach in Tom Sermanni who was on that journey with us.
“He’d been there from the start. It was really how he helped shape and structure the team in a way that we could use the young bright superstars coming through but still have those experienced professional players that were coming towards the end of their career that were still so valuable to the dynamics of the team.
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“It was a culmination of all of those elements coming together at the right time.”
Leading up to the big dance in 2010, Gill was the lone goal scorer in the semi-final against powerhouse Japan in which the Matildas made the final. She goes on to describe that milestone.
“I remember that game like Japan were just the nation to beat…and they had been for sometime…and North Korea. They (had previously) outplayed us considerably…but for us it was just about hanging in that game and taking that opportunity when it presented itself,” Gill said.
“I was fortunate enough to be the person that was in the right spot at the right time to capitalise on that.”
When asked if prep from the semifinal leading into the final was serious business or more of an enjoyable experience, Gill recalls.
“I think it was more enjoy it…we’d reached the goal of qualifying (for the world Cup) which is what we wanted to do so that was done and I think from there anything was icing on the cake…we came here to do what we needed to do,” Gill said.
To add to the glory of being crowned the tournament champions, Gill outlines the tough conditions of the competition.
“There’s not much rest between games, we were playing on the same pitch, every team was playing on the same pitch, it was a two day turnaround and we were in China in the middle of the wet season and so the pitch was absolutely wrecked when it came to the end of the finals,” Gill said.
“It’s a really challenging tournament to be involved in. Looking at it now and thinking just how challenging it is for female footballers to operate in the environment…and to get success along the way.
“There’s no prize money associated with the tournament, although there is for the men’s…so the contrast and quality between what the men go through and what the women go through is very, very stark. When we won it, I got a plasma TV, we all got a plasma TV and that came from the federation.”
That stark contrast Gill speaks of was a total prize pool of US $14,800,000 for the Men’s 2019 Asian Cup competition with the championship winning team pocketing US $5,000,000.
The scheduling of the tournament also means many of the current Matildas will be leaving the European clubs they are currently contracted to for a month.
This is because the competition continues to be played in their team’s country with no major compensation for their contracted clubs for the players to be released, making The Matildas success even more remarkable.
When asked what both Barbieri and Gill see as strengths in the current Matildas side that could land them success again at the Women’s Asian Cup, Barbieri begins.
“Experience…these girls have been through a lot together and the reason why I think we won the 2010 Asian Cup is because we’d learnt so much from the four years before, where we’d made the final (previously) and we’d lost on penalties…the amount of experience and players having spent such a long time overseas and playing professionally, they are just the next level up from where we were experience wise,” Barbieri said.
“They’re all growing in such confidence playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world.”
Gill echoed Barbieri’s sentiment.
“The players that were there in 2010 that are now the backbone of the current Matildas squad…it’s been great to see them come through and where they are now and the careers that they’re having,” gill said.
Quipped on the leadership of Tom Sermanni and if it was ultimately his coaching style or something else within the team, specifically the talent of the roster that led to the side’s large scale success of that period, Gill shares her insight.
“Yeah I’d say it’s more of a management style…he really knows how to get the best out of each individual player. It’s not about treating everybody the same. He really understood what worked for one, didn’t work for another,” Gill said.
“He was technically sound, he knew where the best position for the players was but he wasn’t afraid of giving people opportunity or chances either to see how they would handle or react in those big games…he had a lot of belief in the players he selected.
“I think with Tom, he knows who he is and he’s confident in himself…he’s not a chameleon, he doesn’t change regardless of the situation. What you see on the TV and the way he interacts is what we got as players.”
When asked what the outlook on the World Cup 2023 was and if there was any input for the team or the coach moving forward to our moment on the biggest sporting stage as a tournament winning participant, Gill states.
“I think you’ve just got to enjoy it…we have a new coach who has come in, still settling on his first 11…getting everyone comfortable with that…It’s an exciting tournament to have on our doorstep,” Gill said.
Barbieri continues with some final words of heartfelt encouragement to the current crop of Matildas.
“It’s very exciting and I just want them not to feel too much pressure,” Barbieri said.
I just want them to play their game and play to their strengths and really hold each other tight…we’re going to support them no matter what…we’re going to be there with them no matter what, whether they win or lose.
“I just don’t want them to put that added pressure on themselves because it’s a home World Cup…we want them to win because they’ve done all the little things correct.
“For me as a Matilda, we love them…and we just want them to know that we’re behind them 100 percent no matter what happens.”
The Matildas open their AFC Women’s Asian Cup campaign against Indonesia on January 21, 9.00pm AEDT.