Where now for the Matildas?

Where now for the Matildas?

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And just like that, the dream is over.

As Ingrid Syrstad Engen’s sweetly taken penalty – the fourth in succession by the Norwegians – nestled into the back of the net at the Allianz Riviera in Nice, the book was formally closed on a four-year journey that, at times, showed such promise but ultimately fell short.

One of the bright lights of Australian football, the Matildas represented the finest collection of talent to ever represent Australia on football’s biggest stage.

Thanks to their individual skill, engaging personalities and clear love for the fan base (the scenes at the end of a game at any level when, without fail, they head over to acknowledge and interact with fans should demonstrate that beyond doubt) they were, and still should still be, one of the most popular teams of the nation.

However, heading into the World Cup ranked sixth in the world and seeded for the first time in their history, when a ball was finally kicked in anger in France the Matildas proved unable to reach heights teased in the past.

A revealing opening defeat against Italy was followed by a heart-stopping, come from behind win against Brazil and a 4-1 win over Jamaica to advance to the Round of 16. Whereas both the Brazil and Jamaica victories were undoubted feel-good moments, they seemed to paint over cracks.

Whilst the refereeing did them no favours at all – one moment of randomness as a contentious call fell Australia’s way undoubtedly completely altering the dimensions of the game – the Matildas were unable to break down a well organised and disciplined Norway for 120 minutes on Sunday morning; Elise Kellond-Knight’s lone strike a one in a million-goal directly from a corner.

Playing without talisman Ada Hegerberg, Norway likely would have won it in extra-time had it not been for the heroics of Australian goalkeeper Lydia Williams but, ultimately, got the job done on penalties.

Of course, in the wake of the defeat, observers back in Australia quickly raised their voices about an elephant that has meandered into every room the Matildas found themselves in at this World Cup: former Head Coach Alen Stajcic.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the removal of Stajcic – countless words have and will continue to be written on a subject in which views are seemingly welded on – even the most nuanced changes in systems and philosophy require adjusting to before they can properly be demonstrated in the crucible that is competitive international football.

One can acknowledge that the departure of a coach – any coach – just six months out from a World Cup is not an ideal outcome and never going to be the most stabilising of influences upon a team.

With only five games of preparation, there just seemingly just wasn’t enough time for new Head Coach Ante Milicic and his new side to tailor a game plan that best-suited personnel and that the players could operate within as if it were second nature.

Instead, throughout France 2019, flashes of the Matildas ability to produce football that could break down any side in the world under Milicic were briefly hinted at but, unfortunately, proved an exception rather than the norm.

However, to declare the Matildas “rattled” or off their game because of the departure of Stajcic is to do a disservice to the professionalism and mental strength possessed by the players.

World Cups are the greatest show on Earth for a reason, they produce moments of randomness, brilliance and error that completely without precedent. It’s possible to predict how some World Cups will go – who the major favourites are and who will have an impact – but the how and why are never truly foreseeable.

A Stajcic led Matildas side could have won the World Cup. They could have advanced past Norway only to eliminated in the quarterfinals. They could have failed to score a single goal in the group stages and been bundled out.

Such a timeline is impossible to accurately determine.

However – perhaps inadvertently or deliberately overlooked by fans and the media (this writer included) – the hints of the Matildas’ downfall in France were visible on the horizon even during the Stajcic era.

Under the former boss, the Matildas sputtered to the final of the 2018 Asian Cup; winning only once within 90 minutes over the course of the tournament, getting taken to penalties by Thailand in the semi-finals and eventually losing the final to Japan.

In subsequent friendlies played against France and England, hints of a European divide emerged as the Matildas battled to second-best performances in a loss and late draw. Defensive frailties were further demonstrated in a 3-2 loss to Chile before a follow-up 5-0 win.

Though wins against South Korea, New Zealand and Argentina followed in the wake of Stajcic’s removal and the appointment of Milicic, ensuing defeats at the hands of top-quality opposition in the Netherlands and the United States showed that there was still a trend at play.

That defeat against the Netherlands was the twelfth and final match Australia would have against European opposition between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, of which Australia only won two. Indeed, in their four games in France, the Matildas defeated South American’s Brazil and Caribbean nation Jamaica but suffered losses against Italy and Norway.

And perhaps therein lies the real lesson to be taken from France 2019.

Though the growth of Women’s football has come on in leaps and bounds across the country in recent years, such development has not occurred in a vacuum. All around the world, nations are investing in women’s football programs at hitherto unseen levels and the results on the park are becoming evident.

European giants such as Manchester United and Real Madrid are all scrambling to join the likes of Barcelona, Juventus Manchester City, Lyon and Chelsea in fielding women’s teams. The standard of club football – both in terms of facilities and skill – is increasing around the world and the benefits are clear.

Of the last eight sides remaining at the World Cup, it is highly likely that at least six of them will hail from Europe, with the possibility that it could be seven not to be discounted. Only women’s football powerhouse the United States – possessing the strong NWSL – looks capable of keeping the trophy away from the continent.

The Matildas may very well have entered this World Cup with the most talented group in their history but, unfortunately for them, it appears several other nations have as well.

As thoughts now turn to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, critical planning and investment will be needed to ensure that Australia is not left behind as the women’s game around the world continues its rise.

Environments and working conditions in not only the W-League, but also WNPL and elite training institutions will require attention.

Australia cannot plan to compete in the decades to come with the likes of France, England, Germany and the United States with the current scant resources, wages and professional environments afforded to its players.

The W-League currently lacks a full home and away season and facilities lag behind whilst the WNPL is inconsistently resourced and rolled-out across the country.

Though Australia’s top players can and do make their way overseas to play, it’s almost always done as an addendum to W-League playing careers in order to make ends meet; raising issues of load management.  Greater links between the W-League and NWSL may be one of the most immediate results from this World Cup.

The supporter base for women’s football is one of the most fervent in all of Australia but it remains small and investment is needed to be made to expand it and open greater commercialization opportunities in the future.

Hard questions will need to be asked and answered by the powers that be because – as Sam Kerr demonstrated in France – it will take more than a generational talent to win a World Cup for Australia: it will likely take a team of them.

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