Sonia O’Sullivan: Australia on tenterhooks as the Matildas await their fate

Win or bust clash against Brazil in the World Cup the major topic in Australian sport

 Barbara Bonansea scores Italy’s winner against Australia in the World Cup Group C clash  at Stade du Hainaut on  in Valenciennes, France. Photograph:  Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Barbara Bonansea scores Italy’s winner against Australia in the World Cup Group C clash at Stade du Hainaut on in Valenciennes, France. Photograph: Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

 

It’s hard to go anywhere in Australia right now without hearing some talk about the Matildas.

That being the Australian women’s World Cup team and, even for a country of this size, they’ve been getting a lot of attention and generating a lot of anticipation – even as it’s all unfolding in the faraway stadiums of France.

A lot of it has been news to me and you don’t need to follow the game too closely to realise it’s a big deal. As the sixth-ranked team in the Fifa world rankings, Australia were fully expected to get through the group stages.

That is until they were surprisingly beaten by Italy in their first group game on Sunday evening Australia time. That was also one of the few games on at a reasonable hour with the next two must-win group games, firstly against Brazil, then Jamaica, both taking place at 2am Australia time.

This was the first win for Italy at a women’s World cup since 1999, a big shock for the Matildas, who seem to enjoy that popular nickname, and who now face an uphill battle to get through the group stages to the knockout phase.

Late on Thursday tonight – as in 2am local time here – Australia face Brazil in a must-win game. It is not an impossible task but there will be little room for error in this game with Brazil enjoying positive momentum after a 3-0 win over Jamaica in their first-round game.

It’s not the first time Australia have been in this position; they have had seven appearances at the World Cup, three times progressing to the quarter finals in 2007, 2011 and 2015. In both 2011 and 2015 Australia also lost their first group games so they are remaining upbeat and positive knowing the task that lies ahead.

Described locally as a “nightmare” start for Australia, they have everything to do just to get to qualify to the knockout stage now.

Australia have played Brazil more often than Italy so they believe they will be more prepared and know better what to expect when facing Brazil. Brazil are the 10th ranked team in the competition, but everyone knows rankings are just a guideline and don’t count for anything at this stage.

Women’s soccer has fast grown into one the most popular sports in Australia, helped along by Sam Kerr, the standout and most well-recognised player of the Australian team. This will be her third World Cup appearance and she is just 25 years old.

Team sport

Kerr started out in the Australian women’s soccer league, and now plays for the Chicago Red Stars, and is the all-time leading scorer in the US national Women’s Soccer League .

She’s also become something of an inspiration to so many young girls, with soccer currently the most popular team sport for girls in Australia.

Only last year she was named the Young Australian of the Year. This all helps raise the profile of the sport in Australia and further the anticipation of the success of the Matildas at this World Cup in France.

I know when my daughter Sophie played soccer for a while a few years back, the local team used to hire national league players to help coach the young girls. Some of these girls were either playing for Australia, or on the verge of doing so, so the reality of where you could go in the sport was apparent and inspirational for young players.

All the World Cup games are live on free-to-air TV here, even if the majority are on at 2am and 5am each night, there is also a highlights program to catch up on all the overnight games each evening.

There’s also at least one page devoted to the women’s World Cup in all the major newspapers each day, and they don’t hold back on assessing the strength and weaknesses of each performance.

The major interest is of course in Australia and even more so now that the pressure is on to perform in the next two games to keep the dream alive.

For me it’s even more reason to visit the local cafe each day and keep up to date with reaction from inside the Australian team, and anyone that is willing to talk and share any insights and opinions on the reality and expectation for these women.

There has also been some tensions recently with a change of coach just six months out from the start of the tournament. Alen Stajcic, who had coached the Matildas since 2014 had his contract terminated with immediate effect last January. There were no specifics or details given apart from a breakdown in relations between the coach and some of the players.

Stajcic was there for the qualification to the World Cup but has now been replaced by former Australian men’s team assistant coach Ante Milicic.

You have to think that there must be some unrest in the team with such a recent change. Even though all looks positive from the outside you have to wonder about the shock result against Italy, and if this was the breaking point for a team trying to present a positive presence and outlook when there are many unresolved and underlying cracks.

Pay gap

Still this may be the wake- up call the Matildas need to put aside their differences and come together as the team that got them to the World Cup and live up to their ranking and push through to the next round.

They’ve also been at the forefront of women’s issues in sport and soccer, their 2015 pay-strike demanding better payment and treatment of players, while they also continue their quest to close the gender pay gap on the men’s game, and especially the Socceroos, the Australian men’s team.

Now it seems it all comes down to one game against Brazil in the early hours of Friday morning. It may be the pressure that gets them across the line and also awakens the supporters to the realisation e that it’s not an easy task or foregone conclusion that they will be able to get beyond the group stages.

Australia may lean on the greatness of Sam Kerr, but Brazil will also be hoping for the return of their star player Marta Viera Da Silva, who was forced to miss their opening game against Jamaica while recovering from a thigh injury.

There has been a lot of talk and expectation in Australia, there was an exclusive specially designed jersey for the women’s team that was released in March.

Inside the collar of the shirt are the words ‘Never Say Die, and the Matildas will need to do everything in their power to live by these words when they line up against Brazil at the State de la Mosson in Monpellier at 6pm tonight, local time.

This could be one of the games of the tournament when one team is desperate for a result and the other has to maintain focus, and not just assume victory will come easy. Come Friday morning the result could be the talk of Australia.

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