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  • Writer's pictureCody Ojeda

The good, bad, and promising from the Matildas World Cup campaign

Australia's Women's World Cup journey was one filled with highs after uncertain periods surrounding different aspects of the team preceded it. Damaging defeats and a poor showing at last year’s Asian Cup left many wondering if the Matildas could compete with the world’s best, even when results, injury, and personnel concerns started to turn in the side's favour. Front Page Football deep dives into the Matildas campaign and looks at the past month's good, bad, and promising signs.


Throughout his tenure, particularly when questioned after a high-profile defeat, Tony Gustavsson continually asked for patience and requested the public judge his performance at the World Cup.

Tony Gustavsson has come under fire at different stages of his Matildas tenure. (The Canberra Times)


The tournament has come and gone now, and as the dust settles on the fantastic football festival and a showcase of women in sport on our shores, the time for reflection on the Matildas' campaign begins.


While it wasn’t all perfect, it’s hard to ignore Australia's enormous achievements and the seismic shift in their support.


The good


From a checkbox viewpoint, there is not much the Matildas didn’t do.


The consensus leading into the tournament was the Matildas should top their group and reach the quarter-final stage. With that context, what cannot be understated from this World Cup is the size of what they achieved. A semi-final appearance, effectively crowning them a top-four nation whilst also knocking out two sides ranked higher leading into the tournament. It would be wishful thinking to have expected more from this World Cup.

While the road wasn’t straightforward, and fans can be forgiven for their scepticism over how Australia made it there, the fact remains that 2023 is the Matildas greatest ever World Cup performance.


It saw the nation unite off the pitch too, and as the Matildas went further in the competition, the hype grew even more. The Australian public, not just football fans, could see this run was exceptional. It’s an achievement the country cannot take for granted.

The Matildas celebrate their penalty shootout win over France. (Canberra Weekly)


But effectively doing it without the team’s traditional focal point, Sam Kerr, makes the feat all the more astonishing. While Kerr's absence likely contributed to the Matildas' indifferent start, Australia's ability to regroup and adjust without her can be regarded as an achievement. The injury also allowed other Matildas, who were not household names before the tournament commenced, to step up and make a name for themselves.


Hayley Raso stepped up when the Matildas needed her most for the Canada game. Katrina Gorry finished the tournament with the most successful tackles and covered 74.8 km, culminating in a heartwarming journey from giving birth to her daughter Harper. Mackenzie Arnold kept the most clean sheets at the tournament and made three huge saves in the shootout against France after spending much of her international career as the Matildas' second or sometimes third-choice goalkeeper.


Combine Arnold's emergence with the breakout performances of Kyra Cooney-Cross, Mary Fowler, Clare Hunt, and Cortnee Vine, and the opportunity Kerr's absence provided proved fruitful. The names mentioned above may be common knowledge to those who have followed the Matildas previously. But newer or casual fans are now familiar with these players too.


The bad


Despite several players making a name for themselves, the lack of rotation across the squad left fans disappointed.


One of the imperative tasks given to Gustavsson when he became the Matildas' head coach was to increase the talent pool and depth at his disposal. It is a task he has embraced over his tenure, with 19 players making their debut since his first game in 2021. This figure is the same number of Matildas debutants we saw from 2013 to the start of Gustavsson's tenure.


A significant part of Gustavsson's ideology, which he consistently presented to the media, was the idea of success being achieved by “23 in 23” for Australia at the World Cup.


Hence why, to much surprise, he seemed to lack faith in the squad's depth. Injuries primarily forced changes to the team, and substitutions became predictable and often too late.


Gustavsson never utilised his full substitution quota in any World Cup match. Before the third-place playoff, he made only two substitutions before the 75th-minute all-tournament. While Gustavsson is not required to do any of those things, certain situations during the tournament suggested a change in system or personnel was needed. To the frustration of fans, they were not seen.

Furthermore, nine players in the squad averaged more than 80 minutes during the tournament. In contrast, another nine averaged less than 10 minutes, with the remaining five not seeing any minutes. What became apparent towards the end of the England match, and throughout the Sweden game, was the number of players appearing to be burnt out.


Ellie Carpenter was singled out for criticism after the England game for her mistake in the lead-up to their second goal. Against Sweden, she looked well off the pace. They were errors and performances that came with tired legs. Carpenter played every minute of the tournament until she was substituted against Sweden in the 74th minute. Considering her usual high standards and physical prowess, fatigue is the most likely contributor to the downward turn in form.


Another aspect on display in this tournament, which may be cause for concern, is Australia's continual struggles against a low block. Facing Ireland and Nigeria in the first two games, the Matildas only scored once from open play.


On paper, the Matildas should have swept both teams aside with ease. However, football isn’t played on paper, and credit must go to Nigeria and Ireland for successfully implementing a game plan that frustrated Australia, limiting space in the final third for them to exploit.

The Matildas were left frustrated in their second group stage match against Nigeria. (The West Australian)


It’s an issue that has plagued the side since Gustavsson's appointment. While the side’s ability to compete with higher-ranked nations has increased, this aspect of the Matildas has been a consistent issue.


As the side return to facing fellow AFC nations to qualify for the Olympics and Asian Cup, containing teams that traditionally implement this low block against Australia, Gustavsson will need to address the issue quickly.


The promising


Valid concerns were rightfully raised at points in the tournament. However, it’s hard to look at the Matildas' campaign as anything but a net positive that should leave fans excited for the future of this team. Australia has shown it can compete with the best nations in the world. These countries have invested millions into all levels of their domestic games.


These are nations with full-time professional women’s leagues and proper academy structures, two things Australia currently lacks. So, the fact the Matildas can play at the level of nations with further developed women's football structures is a testament to the current crop of players. But it also leaves one to imagine Australia's potential if it implements similar footballing systems.


It’s easier said than done and would most likely require government assistance in Centre of Excellence funding. However, hosting this World Cup should bring a lasting legacy for Australian women's football. While we are starting to see government funds allocated to the grassroots level of the game, an aspect that needs addressing is increasing the pathways available for females to progress from grassroots to professional football.

Hayley Raso celebrates her goal against Denmark with her teammates. (Sporting News)


Another discussion is whether this aspect is funded privately or by the federal government. However it comes about, its implementation will do wonders for Australia's talent pool.


As mentioned above, the Matildas hype was continuously built through the duration of the tournament in a way no one could have predicted. This Matildas side broke almost every viewership record on offer to them.


The highest attendance for a women’s football match in Australia was broken and then equalled twice, and every game smashed TV records. First, it became the most-watched football match in Australia, then the most streamed event in Australian history, the most-watched TV event since Cathy Freeman won gold at the Sydney Olympics, before topping that with a peak audience of 11.15 million viewers for the semi-final against England.


A study by Dr Hunter Fujak estimates the number for the England game could be as high as 17.16 million when including Optus Sport viewers and those at live sites or pubs, meaning roughly 62% of the population likely tuned in.

 

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The nation's investment into this Matildas team should have a flow-on effect on women’s football and football generally in this country. Sydney FC announced they had broken their A-League Women’s membership record two months before the new season. Social media is awash with new Matildas fans asking when they will play next and where they can watch their new heroes outside of Matildas matches.


YouTube star Christian Hull even boasted recently to his 1.7 million TikTok followers that he has signed up as a member of his local club, Brisbane Roar, for the upcoming season.


This World Cup has pushed the Matildas into the mainstream in unprecedented ways, and it seems the hype around them will not die out in the short term. People are excited about this team and invested in the players and the collective. With the Olympics not far away, there’s an opportunity for this excitement to grow even further.


There’s a lot to take away from this tournament. But the most prominent point is the sheer size of Australia's achievement on and off the pitch. This team has captured the heart of a nation and shown what can be possible for women’s football. As with every tournament, there will need to be reflections on where they fell short. However, the key issues that arose during the campaign, albeit frustrating for fans, are pretty simple to fix.


So, while Australia basks in the historic achievement of the Matildas at the Women's World Cup, an achievement we may not realise the significance of until the high of the tournament starts to settle, the most exciting aspect of the team is they could be on the precipice of something much more meaningful.

How this potential is realised remains to be seen. But this tournament has shown the Matildas deserve to be amongst the top nations in the world, and a medal at a major international tournament now feels like a realistic possibility, even in the tone of gold.


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