There has never been more anticipation leading up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the Australia national football squad. In a nation where football often fights for relevance, a World Cup on home soil, a team including members of the golden age, and a promising run of consistent strong form have sparked attention and heightened expectations. The squad had raised expectations under the talismanic leadership of Sam Kerr, although Tony Gustavsson’s leadership wasn’t always successful. Early on, the coach’s career was marred by defensive shortcomings. After leading his team to a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, a dismal departure from the Asian Cup quarterfinals in 2022 cast doubt on the Swede’s capacity to launch a serious World Cup bid.
With a broad grin and a silly demeanor that belied a reputation for tactical acumen, the flamboyant Tony Gustavsson assumed the hot seat in January 2021. Since taking over as the Matildas’ head coach, he hasn’t been hesitant to try new things tactically. His work as Jill Ellis’ assistant was crucial to the USA’s back-to-back World Cup victories in 2015 and 2019. He attempted to play three at the back at the Tokyo Olympics, with some success, but he now appears to have decided on a back four in a more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation.
There aren’t many, if any, accolades available to characterise Sam Kerr’s phenomenon of scoring goals. The striker is in top form and just completed a double-winning season with Chelsea in which she scored a lot of goals and won a lot of individual awards. Due to her significance to the Matildas, there is a sense that she is carrying the aspirations of a nation on her shoulders going into this tournament. She owns the Australian record for international goals; her 63rd goal this year helped defeat England in her 120th match.
Cortnee Vine stands out as one of the few players on a team of famous players that play in European leagues who earned her spot because of her accomplishments in the home league. The Sydney FC flyer’s ascent to fame has been swift, and while she isn’t yet a starter, she has the potential to contribute off the bench thanks to her aggressive running style and knack for putting rival defenders on the back foot.
The Soccertoos might have been another name for the Matildas. The national women’s squad had previously gone by the name Female Socceroos. In 1995 the broadcaster SBS decided to hold a competition for viewers to choose a new moniker. The shortlist also includes the Blue Flyers, Waratahs, and Lorikeets in addition to the Soccertoos and Matildas. However, viewers chose Matildas, a reference to the song Waltzing Matilda, and the rest is history.
State of football
Australian women and girls love football. Despite record-breaking attendance at this year’s grand final, strong participation rates have not yet translated into high levels of interest in the domestic league. The Matildas at least get attention comparable to that of their male counterparts, the Socceroos, on the national squad, which is a different animal altogether. A FIFA Women’s World Cup held at home has increased public interest in Australia. Administrators have been eager to highlight the long-lasting impact. They feel the competition will have on the sport given the continuous growth of women’s athletics.
In Kerr, Gustavsson’s team has a player who, if on fire, may even carry them to victory. Gustavsson’s team has the ability to go far at home. Despite the improvements, this squad still has a certain amount of unpredictability. How they handle any opening-night nerves may very well determine how the rest of their season will go.
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