On the cusp of greatness? Why this Matildas generation could be its best ever
The golden generation of the Socceroos will live long in the memory of football fans right across Australia.
That side ended 32 years of hurt to get Australia back to the World Cup and ensure it became regular qualifiers. They also set the foundation for success at the 2015 Asian Cup, arguably the most significant moment in Australian football history.
The period brought about one appearance in the knockout stage of the World Cup, two Asian Cup Final appearances, and one where they were crowned champions. It was a run that will also be difficult to emulate again.
However, even by the standards set here, the Matildas could reach these heights soon.
Since 2005, the Matildas have reached the knockout stages of every major tournament they have participated in so far. Their particular highlights include reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the third consecutive time in 2015. The extra game needed to get to this stage made this achievement more impressive than the two previous tournaments. Furthermore, their recent success included a fourth-place finish at the Olympics in 2021 and their Asian Cup triumph in 2010.
The Matildas have been one of Australia's most celebrated national teams in recent years. (Tourism Queensland)
Much of this period was headlined by legend Lisa De Vanna. Sam Kerr became the focal point as the former came closer to her international retirement.
However, the most extraordinary aspect of this period is that the Matildas achieved what they did with largely domestic-based squads.
Matilda's players were often plying their trade in the W-League and, due to its shorter length, would spend the offseason either in the USA’s National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) or in their local state league competition.
But the world of women’s football is changing.
Increased investment from the biggest clubs in Europe has seen the world’s best players slowly converge on the continent to take advantage of the increased opportunity to become a professional.
Sam Kerr headlined a host of Matildas moving to European clubs in 2019. (Sky Sports)
And Australian footballers haven’t been left behind in this regard, with more and more heading to Europe each year and getting the opportunity to face world-class players week in, week out.
In the last few months alone, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Courtney Nevin, Katrina Gorry, and Remy Siemsen joined Damallsvenskan sides, with the Scandinavian region fast becoming an ideal place for young and fringe Matildas.
With more Australian women looking to test themselves against Europe’s elite, could this be the beginning of a new golden generation for the Matildas?
Mixed results under Tony Gustavsson’s tenure have fans thinking the days of a successful Matildas side are behind them. The recent Asian Cup disappointment can justify their pessimism.
However, the performances of Matildas at a club level should fill fans with confidence again about the future of the national team.
The crucial figures in the squad are flying, with Sam Kerr recently crowned the Football Writer's Association (FWA) Women's Super League (WSL) Player of the Season. Her Chelsea side has just battled out an intense title race with an Arsenal side featuring Matildas Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley, and Lydia Williams.
Most notably, however, is Ellie Carpenter’s Lyon reaching the final of the UEFA Women's Champions League (UWCL), with the fullback playing a vital role in their run so far. Should she feature in that game, it will be the third consecutive season an Australian is on the pitch in the most prominent fixture in women’s club football. This achievement is monumental for Australian football.
Ellie Carpenter has played a vital role in Lyon's Champions League run. (Twitter: @OL_English)
These achievements have come off the back of Australian women, young and old, taking the chance to move into these professional environments. Their success has seen European clubs continue to look for more talent down under.
Of the four players previously mentioned as making moves to the Damallsvenskan, all are 22 or younger. The fanfare around their signings suggests they are highly regarded at their respective clubs. That can only be a positive as they push for minutes at a critical stage in their career.
Other A-League Women stars such as Chelsie Dawber (22), Alex Chidiac (23), Susan Phonsongkham (21), Melina Ayres (23), and Annabel Haffenden (20), all made overseas moves following the conclusion of the 2021/22 season. They join many young Aussie women overseas looking to continue their development as professionals.
The strength of the current Matildas squad could also be defined by those missing out.
Alex Chidiac only made the last squad because of an injury to Kyra Cooney-Cross. Meanwhile, more overseas-based players such as Beatie Goad (UD Tenerife), Amy Harrison (PSV), Indiah-Paige Riley (Fortuna Hjorring), and Jacynta Galabadaarachchi (Celtic) also struggled to get into recent squads. The latter was recently named Celtic's Women’s Player of the Year and is still yet to be called up.
Jacynta Galabadaarachchi was recently named Celtic Women's Player of the Season and the Scottish Women's Premier League (SWPL) Young Player of the Season. (Herald Scotland)
The current pool of players is strong, but ensuring the Matildas capitalise on this talent is another ball game.
The next eighteen months could define this current group's legacy as they head into a World Cup on home soil where expectations will be high. Should the Matildas go deep in the tournament, it would undoubtedly put the disappointment of the Asian Cup behind them.
Success must follow with so much expectation surrounding this side, which will only increase as they strengthen in quality. The latest Asian Cup campaign was an opportunity missed to begin a dynasty in the continent, considering the quality and reputation of the players compared to their opposition.
While the situation looks bright now, Australia must not get complacent as a nation. With the increase in world-class female footballers the country is producing, the priority for the FA should be to ensure it stays ahead of the curve. Particularly with other countries worldwide increasing their investment in women’s football.
Australia’s reputation in women’s football is arguably the best it has ever been. Currently, the country boasts Ballon D’or nominees, Champions League finalists, and players littered right across top European leagues.
The current Matildas squad has a number of world-class players, but can the FA ensure the production line continues? (The Women's Game)
But ensuring Australia has a constant stream of players that can reach these heights is the FA's challenge now.
This position was where the old FFA failed as the Socceroos' golden generation came to fruition. This group of players hit their peak at a similar time to when the A-League was created. A lack of forward-thinking resulted in clubs in the new top-flight competition having no youth teams at their creation, before having under 21 teams that played in an 18 round competition from 2008 to 2015.
2015 saw most A-League clubs finally create proper academy structures. But the delay led to a substantial dip in quality in the standard of young players making their way into the A-League.
The academy structures have seen some success stories already. However, with a lack of world-class players produced in the last ten years, Australia’s reputation in men’s football has taken a hit. It is now up to the new crop of players to recreate an image of Australian football around the world that the golden generation of yesteryear worked so hard for in the first place.
Where the Matildas and women’s football in Australia currently sit is eerily similar to this situation.
In Australia, top-flight women’s football only runs for 14 weeks before the finals. Very few top-flight clubs have academy structures to ensure the best footballers are in a professional environment from an earlier age.
The Newcastle Jets' Emerging Jets NPL team is one of few academy structures for A-League Women sides in Australia. (Beyond 90)
The Matildas have gotten away with this system as professional settings for women’s football were scarce right around the world. But as an investment in this area continues, it won’t be long before the FA face a real possibility of being left behind.
The Matildas and Australian women’s football are currently in good stead. A disappointing start to the year has been followed by several success stories for the country’s footballers at a club level. With the next 18 months being one of the biggest timeframes in Matilda's history, this group of players have an opportunity to cement legendary status.
The squad must meet that expectation, whilst the FA needs to learn from past mistakes to ensure this generation is not a one-off. It must be the start of a continuous line of world-class footballers and, hopefully, continued success.
To read more in-depth articles about the Matildas like this one, click here.