Australia fell short of a women’s football medal at the Tokyo Olympics, but the rise to the final four was hard-earned, methodical and at times a little lucky.
The Inner Sanctum takes a look back at the rapid regeneration of the Matildas.
2018 Asian Cup and World Cup 2019
It may be a distant memory now, but Australia secured qualification for the last World Cup by goal difference.
The 2018 Asian Cup doubled as a qualifier. The top two teams from each group were off to France, and Australia squeezed in thanks to a last gasp Sam Kerr equaliser against Japan.
Thailand gave the Aussies a scare in the semi-final. Another injury-time equaliser, this time to Alanna Kennedy, was needed to progress to penalties.
This was the same Thailand team that would be defeated 13-0 by the USA the next year.
The World Cup in 2019 was not a disaster, but it fell short of public and internal expectations. After a quarter-final appearance in 2015, the Matildas had hopes of going at least one step further.
A turbulent preparation including a last-minute coach replacement and injuries to key players Laura Brock, Kyah Simon, and Chloe Logarzo did not help matters.
Australia’s opening loss to Italy was due to a late set-piece, but spectacular wins over Brazil and Jamaica meant that they advanced in second place.
The semi-finals saw them encounter Norway. After bravely holding on, they lost on penalties, but a worrying trend was emerging: Australia struggled against European opposition.
They needed more exposure to these players and systems.
The European Exodus
Lisa De Vanna was the first to go, The Matildas legend signed for Fiorentina in Italy. After decades of ignoring the potential, European clubs were beginning to invest heavily in women’s football, and Australian players needed to be on that ride.
Sam Kerr was next. The Matildas captain signed with Chelsea and in doing so became the highest-paid female player in the world.
What began as a trickle became a flood. The best Australian players and prospects saw the writing on the wall. To get better they had to be in Europe.
With the encouragement of Matildas coach Ante Milicic, almost the entirety of the first-choice squad found clubs in top-tier European leagues.
After years of development in the United States and the W-League, the players bravely left their comfort zones and shipped out. For themselves and for the national team.
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Individual success was mixed. But they were each faced with unique pressures and the type of opposition that the Matildas had trouble overcoming.
Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord faced an unending run of must-win games at the top of the table with Chelsea and Arsenal.
At the other end, Alanna Kennedy faced a relegation battle with Tottenham, joined by the West Ham pair of Emily van Egmond and Mackenzie Arnold.
Steph Catley struggled through injuries at Arsenal, but the facilities of the elite club and the security provided by a two-year deal gave her the best opportunity to recover. Australia would benefit.
The New Coach
Ante Milicic had intended to manage the side through the Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for 2020.
When COVID forced a year delay, he stepped away to take charge of A-League side Macarthur FC. His contract with them was agreed to before the pandemic.
There was now no timeline on when the Matildas could play again and all the players settling overseas. The search for a new manager was slow and considered, frustratingly so to the footballing public.
High profile names from International and club football were thrown up, including Jill Ellis of the victorious USA and Joe Montemurro of Arsenal.
A selection committee chaired by Remo Nogarotto and featuring Amy Duggan, Mark Bresciano, Sarah Walsh, and National Technical Director Trevor Morgan landed on Tony Gustavsson.
Football Australia was transparent with his appointment, and the football community was invited to a live stream of his unveiling and first press conference.
Every fan that attended was told why he had been appointed and what he planned to deliver. Crucially, Gustavsson has a long 21-year history in coaching and primarily in women’s football.
There is sometimes a perception within women’s sport that it is used as a stepping-stone to the men’s game. Gustavsson, however, had already spent his career in women’s football.
He had experience with winning tournaments and coaching the same sort of sides that the Matildas had struggled against.
Although he took charge officially in January 2021, the state of the world meant it was not until April until he could work in person with his players. He had little time to prepare for the fast-approaching Olympics.
Australia had played Brazil four times in friendly matches between 2017 and 2019. While these games were fun, challenging, and exciting, they began to offer no real learning opportunities for the players.
If Australia were to win against European sides, Gustavsson reasoned, they had to play them and suffer the lessons on the way.
Football Australia set up games beginning in April against Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. After over a year since they last played as a team, the Matildas were back against heavyweight opponents.
To put it frankly, it was hard to watch. Rusty, missing key players and up against the very best, Australia conceded five goals to each of the first two opponents. It was not so much a reality check as a measuring stick. This was the standard they had to match.
The Denmark game saw a more familiar Matildas. The midfielders returned, Ellie Carpenter was again at right-back and Mary Fowler emerged to justify her lofty reputation with an impressive goal in a 3-2 loss.
Against Sweden they tried a new system, a more defensive formation saw them to a 0-0 draw against their Olympic opponents. It was dour viewing, but an important match to show the team was improving.
The most important thing from this game was Teagan Micah showing that she was ready to step up as the starting goalkeeper.
The Matildas run to the Olympic semi-finals felt like an adrenaline rush, but it was well planned out in hindsight.
They got a vital win against New Zealand in the opening game, then showed no fear against Sweden in a 4-2 loss next up.
Against the USA they secured a vital point to survive the group. Similar to the 2006 Socceroos, they had won just a single group game, lost one admirably, and drawn another when they needed.
The final group match was not pretty, there were virtually no highlights. but it was an example of the type of tournament-style planning that Gustavsson was bringing to the setup.
Importantly, after facing repetitive questions about her form coming into Tokyo, Sam Kerr had stepped up in stunning style.
She had not scored since Gustavsson had taken over. Confidently, she was insistent that the focus remained on the opening game of the Olympics.
By the end of the tournament, she had six goals in as many matches. In doing so she became the Matildas all-time leading scorer.
Catch up: Tokyo 2020 match recaps
The Matildas showed tactical flexibility that they had not in previous years. Able to counter-attack, defend deep, deliver an offside trap, and score from set pieces. the team had come a long way in three months.
Kyra Cooney-Cross joined Fowler and Micah as young players who all looked comfortable and impactful at the elite level.
Had the Olympics gone ahead in 2020, these players might not have been ready.
Most importantly, long-standing obstacles were overcome. By the end of the Olympics, Australia had beaten a European side. They had also won a knockout game in the same evening against Team GB.
They fell at the last hurdle to a medal at the Olympics, and the players looked devastated. Although they lost the bronze medal to the USA, they looked a different side to 2018. They have re-positioned themselves as one of the best teams in the world.
The Matildas have re-energised themselves. They improved from thrashings in April to deliver their best tournament run ever. In doing, so they have given themselves and their fans hope for the future.
It was remarkable, it was memorable and it was thrilling, but it was no accident.
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