The Australian women’s football team has long since captured the hearts of its legion of fans.
- Draw for group stage of 2019 World Cup takes place in Paris on Sunday Dec 9 (AEST)
- Ranked sixth in the world, Australia are a seeded team for the competition
- World No.1 USA, Germany and hosts France are favourites to claim the title
But for coach Alen Stajcic, in France this weekend for the draw for next year’s World Cup, it is the minds of his players with which he is most concerned.
“It’s the best-prepared squad [Australia has ever taken to a World Cup Finals], technically and tactically,” he said.
“But I also think it’s the best prepared mentally. And that’s almost the most important factor.
“Mentality has always been the biggest hurdle for Australian teams [in the past], and that’s one hurdle that I think this team has overcome.
“There is a genuine belief in this squad that we can win.”
Australia as world champions, in a sport played by more nations than make up the UN and which fights for space in a crowded domestic market? It previously seemed a fanciful notion. No longer.
Ranked sixth in the world, the Matildas are set to be seeded when the groups are decided early on Sunday morning [AEST].
“We don’t often reflect back or pat ourselves on the back,” Stajcic said.
“But I think being in the top pot, in the upper echelons of the sport, is already a massive achievement for Australian football.”
USA the team to beat
Other nations will travel to France with their own ambitions of world domination, of course.
Hosts France and European heavyweights Germany are two of three clear favourites. The imperious Americans are the biggest obstacle to all other contenders.
“It’s just a winning mentality that the Americans seem to have,” Melbourne Victory’s English forward Natasha Dowie said.
“They have the knowledge that they’ve been there and done it.
“The Matildas have never won a World Cup, the Americans have. That is a huge advantage for them.”
Matildas midfielder Alanna Kennedy believes any country in the current top 10 can mount a challenge, with “the gap between 10 and 20 closing all the time”.
“It’s obviously going to be difficult. We have a lot of small steps we need to take during the process to get there,” she said.
“[But] if we put everything together in the process along the way, then we’ll be there at the end.”
Taking a place at the top table
Australia have undoubtedly earned their place in the conversation.
A watershed first-ever victory over the Americans, on their own soil, in 2017 made the world sit up and take notice.
Stajcic, however, traces the belief he identifies in his players back further, to an Olympic Games qualifier against Japan in 2016.
The manner of the victory over the then-recent world and Olympic finalists, he said, was “a massive turning point for our team in terms of belief and optimism about how good we could be”.
It kick-started a run of eye-catching performances. That win over USA was part of a Tournament of Nations competition in which heavyweights Japan and Brazil were also outplayed.
The momentum built further with two friendly matches in Penrith and Newcastle, played in front of packed stands, against Brazil. Both matches were won.
In 2018 the results have been less spectacular, although performances have remained strong. The Matildas were one of only two teams to manage a draw against an American team that won 15 of its 17 fixtures this calendar year.
“We’ve moved from a position where maybe we weren’t sure that we could beat those big teams to now knowing that we can,” Kennedy said.
“Then sometimes it’s the lesser level of opponent we need to focus on just as much.
“That’s just part of our maturity as a team. Something that we will be working on.”
Putting the jigsaw puzzle together
That is an unambiguous reference to a recent, error strewn 3-2 home loss against a Chile side ranked 39 in the world.
Despite a 5-0 win against the same opposition days later, it was a wake-up call. A reminder that no opponent should be taken lightly.
Stajcic has been unable to field his ‘best’ 11 of late through a crippling injury list, although fringe players were given opportunities in tough environments as a consequence.
“I know that our depth is increasing, I know that our quality is increasing, I know that the level of professionalism and maturity has increased,” Stajcic said.
“It’s a matter of us putting together all those pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and ensuring that we have everyone healthy and fit and motivated and confident going in to the World Cup.”
Being fit for purpose
Much will depend on the Matildas arriving injury-free in Europe next June. Important players like Kennedy, Hayley Raso and Kyah Simon are either recovered or tracking well after time on the sidelines.
Workloads will need to be managed in a group that regularly backs up seasons in North America with W-League commitments.
“On their day the Matildas can beat anyone,” says Dowie, the W-League’s current leading scorer.
“If you’ve got the best 11 to pick from then I don’t think there are many teams they couldn’t compete with and beat.”
While still lagging behind the men, improved pay deals brokered by the PFA has allowed Australia’s pool of players more time to devote to their craft. Something Dowie says has made Australia’s domestic product more respected internationally.
“I think maybe four years ago most of the internationals saw [coming to the W-League] as a kind of vacation, a nice summer in Australia, get paid to have a kick about for a few months,” she said.
“Whereas now you can’t afford to come with that mindset. It really is of a very high standard this league now.”
Fighting for respect
With the improved profile has come a heightened expectation. For Kennedy that is a positive force rather than a burden.
“When you have support behind you it motivates you to want to do [the fans] proud,” she said, highlighting the increased numbers of young girls – and boys – greeting them at matches.
“That’s the most important thing for us, knowing that we’re inspiring the next generation.”
Stajcic, too is fully aware of the broader significance of his team’s success.
The rise of the Matildas has been one of a number of positive drivers in bringing female athletes, especially in team sports, to greater prominence.
The issue of respect for the women’s game was brought in to sharp focus this week when the first-ever female winner of the Ballon D’Or, Ava Hegerberg from Norway, was asked to ‘twerk’ on stage when collecting her award.
The backlash to that was encouragingly forceful. But it nonetheless underlined the work still needed to be done.
“We’re representing so much more than just our team,” Stajcic said.
“The players really enjoy the fact that they’re representing women’s sport and the evolution of gender equity in our society.
“There are so many bigger elements at play — I think that’s well entrenched in our team mentality, about being really mindful of all those different elements when we go out on the pitch.”
They will continue to do that with optimism and belief in six months’ time, when the world will be watching.