Really, it was a result the Matildas – and their fans – had to have.
Beset by controversy in the wake of the Alen Stajcic sacking, the Matildas had become a flashpoint amongst the Australian footballing zeitgeist in the lead into the FFA Cup of Nations tournament, which they claimed with a 3-0 win over Argentina on Wednesday night.
The spectacularly bungled handling of the removal of Stajcic by the FFA had led to a skirmish between those that backed the decision to remove the 45-year-old over concerns over what was painted as a deleterious team culture and those that claimed that Stajcic had been railroaded out of the job.
The sage evolved – or perhaps devolved – into a bitter war of words involving anonymous sources at twenty paces, finger pointing, sexism, misogyny and homophobia, score-settling and even opportunistic attempts to profit off the affair.
Throughout it all stood the Matildas, who for so long had been held up as a beacon of hope for Australian football but now found themselves dragged through the muck that seems to seep into every facet of Australia’s game at some point.
In the midst of the W-League season, the players found focus shifted away from their exploits on the field, the down to the wire nature of the race for the top four and the dramatic finals series and instead onto the behind the scenes fracas that enveloping their game.
The eventual appointment of Ante Milicic to the Head Coaching role in February finally ended speculation on who would guide the group – currently ranked sixth in the world – to the World Cup in June, but also raised more questions.
Already on the FFA’s books, was Milicic simply inserted into the role because he was cheap stopgap?
Did Milicic, who had never been in charge of a senior side in his coaching career, have what it takes to guide a side to World Cup glory?
Did the 44-year-old, who had only ever been in charge of male athletes throughout his coaching career, have the ability to adapt to the women’s game quickly enough to not place a drain on the campaign?
His first three games in charge at the Cup of Nations were thusly important in the sense that while he couldn’t completely assuage any concerns about his appointment at the tournament regardless of the results, he could certainly validate them with poor performances.
Playing on home soil and going up against sides not expected to challenge at the World Cup, a failure to lift the trophy would have immediately set alarm bells ringing.
Three wins from three games with only a single goal conceded, nevertheless, at least demonstrate that the former Olyroos and Young Socceroos boss isn’t going to oversee a total collapse in the Matildas’ fortunes between now and France.
Furthermore, Milicic has demonstrated a demeanour that suggests that he is more than capable of steering the ‘Tillies ship.
Whilst other ‘outsider’ coaches may have adopted an air of deference and pacifism coming into a role that had been vacated in the manner that the Matildas Head Coaching role had been, Milicic has instead leapt headfirst into the role.
Possessing a reputation in the men’s game for his tactical astuteness and preparation skills, he immediately placed his stamp on the team by naming striker Sam Kerr as his captain and cut a confident figure as he fronted cameras during his first training camp in charge.
And, speaking after his side’s 3-0 win over Argentina on Wednesday night, he demonstrated a refreshing candour in his assessment of his side’s performance.
”I am probably a bit disappointed. I thought we were sluggish from the start, very slow in our build-ups, shifting the ball, moving the opposition around, we were not decisive in our positioning,” he said.
”I thought we were a little bit naive as well. We played a game they were after.”
That ability to recognise and acknowledge the faults in his side’s game, in a situation where it would have been very easy to court goodwill and adulation, bodes well for the preparations of a Matildas side that, although strong, still needs to address a number of issues if they are to challenge for the World Cup.
Despite the Argentines failing to score a goal in their previous matches against South Korea and New Zealand during the tournament, they gave the ‘Tillies a number of scares on Wednesday night, having two goals pulled back for offside.
The Matildas are also unlikely to come up against goalkeeping as calamitous as the performance of South Korea’s Kim Jung-Mi in France.
Previous poor performances against heavyweights France and England in friendlies in 2018 also demonstrate the need for Australia to tighten and improve their game.
With a training camp in the USA and a friendly against the high-powered Americans already organised, the stage is therefore set for Milicic to ramp up preparations for the Matildas as they seek to fine-tune over the next few months.
No doubt, work is already being done to ensure that the clash with the Americans isn’t the only fixture played in that time frame.
We won’t truly know if the Matildas are capable of bringing a first-ever World Cup crown to Australia until they take the field in France, and even then likely not until the face high-quality opposition in the knockout stages.
For now, though, the professional Cup of Nations performances and the early signs from Milicic means that Australian fans can, at least, continue to dream that dream.