The Matildas' moment: The World Cup history shaping a quarterfinal for the ages
It's hard not to be utterly infatuated with the Matildas ahead of their quarterfinal against France in Brisbane. However, what deserves and, in all honesty, needs more discussion in the football community, from the diehards in particular, is the historical context that brought them to this point.
Women's football as a movement and sporting product has obviously ensued a debate. But this debate goes beyond the more materialistic substance of what has happened on the pitch over the years.
So consider this statement an open message and a reminder; the Matildas team, who have taken the country by storm, out-rating the AFL Grand Final on free-to-air television, has always existed. This preview is a crash course on what you have missed in the history of the Matildas in the modern FIFA World Cup era of the women's game.
The Matildas squad ahead of the 1995 World Cup. (Beyond 90)
Although the 1988 Women's Invitational Tournament that laid the groundwork for the establishment of the FIFA Women's World Cup was contested by the Australian national team, it was the formation of an official World Cup and the emergence of an Oceania Championship in a hotly contested period with New Zealand where the women's game started to take shape.
Although an emerging presence in the women's game, Australia was often proven out of their depth upon qualifying for tournaments or playing opposition outside the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) in this period. This performance should not be a surprise, given the team's infrastructural challenges.
The New Zealand team qualified for the first World Cup in 1991, with the OFC Championship being decided by who could score more goals against Papua New Guinea. New Zealand won by seven on goal difference.
The trailblazers of this era were certainly afforded no luxuries or attention from Australian sporting authorities or the Australian sporting public in an age where women's sport was nothing more than a fad and a blip on the sporting landscape.
In a notorious time where money was sparse, and attention was needed before their 1995 World Cup campaign, the Matildas resorted to putting together a nude calendar for campaigning purposes, something that, in the proceeding 28 years, has shown just how far the sport has come.
Regarding on-pitch performance, Angela Iannotta was the star of the group, and Cheryl Salisbury and Julie Murray were the leaders; names you should familiarise yourself with if you haven't already. However, at the tournament in Sweden, 13 goals were conceded as Denmark, China, and the US swept Australia aside.
The 1999 campaign and subsequent growth within darker days for the women's program experienced similar squad and tournament performance. Once again, Salisbury, Murray, and Iannotta led the team, whilst Alicia Ferguson hoisted the bizarre record of the World Cup's fastest-ever red card.
Performance-wise, the squad would gain a point against Ghana but be routinely beaten by Sweden and China, finishing third in their group.
The 2007 Matildas celebrate their first progression from the group stage of a World Cup. (Football Australia archives)
The 2000s are best cited with, of course, the W-League's emergence. But just before the domestic restructuring of the game came the World Cup campaign in 2003. The OFC Championship that year was firmly in Australia's hands, as they did not concede a goal all tournament.
The squad all hailed from state programs, as a mock domestic competition had taken shape, and familiar names would emerge, captained by Salisbury and consisting of a young Heather Garriock and Melissa Barbieri.
Again, what emerged at this World Cup was a similar tale of the quality being too much, though the point gained previously against Ghana came from a 1-1 draw with giants China. Undoubtedly a significant result. But who else would deny Australia's chance to progress than the Ghanaians; elsewhere, Russia would go through with the Chinese.
The growth here was evident, having lost to Ghana and Russia by a single goal and achieving a point. Perhaps the conversation was already being had with the authorities, but change was needed for better results around this time, and change was undoubtedly coming.
2007 marked the first World Cup with which Australia had shown their progress in the women's game, and with a domestic restructuring having taken place nationally in 2004, talk of a national women's league adorning a near-professional set-up akin to the A-League was not far off at all.
The man at the helm, Scot Tom Sermanni, campaigned hard for the league to emerge. But what caused the fuss was how well Australia performed in China.
The squad boasted Sarah Walsh, Lisa De Vanna, Salisbury, Garriock, and a young Clare Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is the only player surviving the campaign in China who is now at a home World Cup in 2023.
The first test, as history would have it, was again Ghana. Naturally, the last laugh belonged to the Matildas, who won 4-1, a sign of things to come and a true testament to the fight Sermanni needed to have.
Impressive draws with Norway and Canada ensured Australia's progression. A quarterfinal with Brazil followed. The Matildas lost 3-2 in what was arguably the moment they arrived on the global stage. Thus, the W-League was formed in 2008.
The Matildas lineup ahead of their 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinal. (FIFA.com)
The battle for recognition in the Australian sporting landscape and the ongoing stigma women in sports faced would define the 2010s.
Germany 2011 marked Australia's second consecutive quarterfinal appearance. For today's Matildas, the W-League's emergence had planted the seed.
Even now, the team reads very pleasantly to those in the Australian game. A baby-faced Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr were debutants on the world stage; Emily van Egmond, Tameka Yallop, Elise Kellond-Knight, Kyah Simon, and many more would define the decade. The current pioneers for the growth of the women's game were all there to experience a successful group stage against Brazil, Norway, and surprise packet Equatorial Guinea.
The quarterfinal would be lost to Sweden. In a FIFA+ documentary, Kerr, a now global superstar, later admitted she did not understand why onlookers were so sad and why Australian football felt so hurt by the loss. But the lessons were there to be learnt.
The Matildas' rise in more modern times can be better explained in 2015, when the team gained national attention with an iconic run to the World Cup quarterfinals in Canada, with the same emerging names at the heart of the performances.
Many may argue the tipping point in the Matildas' true stardom came in 2017 at the Tournament of Nations, one of a few global invitational tournaments frequently exclusive to the women's game and held in the USA. It was a tournament the Matildas won in large part to Sam Kerr's attacking prowess.
The Matildas then gained an accurate gauge of their stardom in preparation for the 2019 World Cup. It was heightened by achieving a best-ever FIFA world ranking of fourth in December 2017. Home wins in various friendlies and tournaments only helped this rise.
We know what happened next; scandals and discontent, the removal of Alen Stajcic, and a massive underperformance culminating in a Round of 16 exit to Norway on penalties.
The hype refused to die.
"You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me" is from the national hymn Australians love. Soon, the nation all became Matildas with one another.
In COVID-ravaged times, the Australian football public rejoiced in the early morning of June 25, 2020, with masks on and mandatory isolation in effect as Gianni Infantino addressed the world, and from underneath his envelope, the fate was sealed; the 2023 World Cup would be heading down under.
Most Matildas' followers remember precisely where they were, and the images from Football Australia headquarters would become iconic.
The team's journey so far has given them a lifetime of memories. So, before the biggest game ever, Australia should salute the Matildas that came before the class of 2023.
They fought for more than just points and wins. They fought for the growth of an entire team and its social movement.
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