"We're going to play our way" - The Young Matildas team ready to take on the world
The ultimate dream of just about any footballer is to represent their country at a World Cup. To pull on your country’s colours and play on an international stage is a moment a player never forgets from their career.
Whether in senior football or for your country’s youth teams, the honour doesn’t waiver. Next month a new group of Aussie girls will experience what would be the most significant moment in their careers thus far.
The Young Matildas are in Mexico to prepare for the upcoming FIFA Under 20 Women’s World Cup. An extended squad of 23 has travelled to the pre-tournament training camp, with the final list of 21 to be decided before heading to Costa Rica.
The side is in Group A for the tournament, which includes the host nation and football powerhouses Spain and Brazil. They will face Costa Rica on the competition's opening day.
FPF recently spoke to the Young Matildas second-assistant coach, Tim Aitken. He gave insight into preparations for the tournament, the squad's mood, and what fans can expect from this side over the next month.
Tim Aitken, the second-assistant coach of the Young Matildas, with Sarah Hunter, who is in the extended squad. (Twitter: @NB_Bulls)
Preparation for this tournament was in full swing when Australia took the AFC spot left by North Korea, who pulled out in March.
Since then, Football Australia has set up multiple training camps and friendly matches with New Zealand. The idea was to ensure as many players as possible had the opportunity to impress leading into next month’s tournament.
“Leah’s (Blayney) covered every area, every player. We’re fortunate enough with the resources we’ve got to look at what players are doing overseas, such as Greta Kraszula, who’s come from the USA and joined this camp," Aitken told Front Page Football in an exclusive interview.
"The Future Matildas programs in each state have [also] been helpful. We’ve been able to film sessions and communicate with coaches so we can be across all players in this age group.”
There was high praise for head coach Leah Blayney, who’s worked to ensure all potential players for this squad were considered and looked at by the coaching staff.
“There’s nothing that isn’t done with Leah; she’s across everything. She knows every Australian in that age group,” Aitken added.
The Young Matildas played four friendlies across two international windows against rivals New Zealand, with games taking place in Canberra and Auckland. The games allowed the staff to assess their progress from the numerous training camps, and the Auckland trip also allowed them to experience travelling as a group.
The Young Matildas celebrate a goal in their friendly victory over New Zealand in Canberra. (The Canberra Times)
“With the amount of time we’ve spent with the players, they understand what we want to do as a team. But more importantly, they’ve gotten to be closer together as a team,” Aitken said.
“I think the most important thing has been that time spent together and bringing people closer together.”
The friendlies and camps have resulted in a 23-player extended squad that travels to Mexico, with a further ten players listed as shadow squad members.
The selected squad is filled primarily with players who have excelled in recent A-League Women seasons. Blayney has given this opportunity to young players in the league who have a significant impact on their side. It means most of the squad are already getting regular minutes at a senior level.
“The opportunity these girls get to play at a young age in the A-League Women exposes them to professional football early in their careers. It shows the level of the players for this age group. We’re an under 20s squad, and we have a massive amount of professional footballers in this group already,” Aitken said.
Jessika Nash (left) and Bryleeh Henry (right) have earned their place in the extended squad following their performances in the A-League Women. (Western Sydney Wanderers)
The pool of players this experience has created means that some in this age group, regulars throughout the last A-League Women season, had to settle for a spot as shadow players. This selection headache is a testament to the quality of players available to Blayney and the Young Matildas.
The squad will be whittled down to 21 before heading to Costa Rica. Aitken has praised the level of competition in training as the girls push for starting spots come the opening match on August 10.
“The level we’re at, the competition is so high. The girls want to be starting. They’re battling players in their positions and trying to put their best foot forward to make the selection for a starting eleven,” he said.
“There’s massive depth here. It’s been difficult to get to 23 players because there’s so much quality.”
The Young Matildas being put through their paces in Mexico. (Twitter: @TheMatildas)
Spirits are high amongst the players at the moment, according to Tim, as the girls grow closer as a unit each day.
“They’re running their team building and bonding sessions, doing little things around the hotel that gets them out of their comfort zone and brings them closer together,” Aitken said.
“Leah and the rest of us staff have set team building exercises. But to see a group of young girls prompt that themselves also shows where they’re at as a group; the girls are a tight-knit family.
“(In the dining room) there’s always a football match on the TV, and that gets them communicating different football ideas.”
It’s a camaraderie that has also worked its way onto the pitch. The supportive environment in camp has ensured players are backing each other while raising their standards.
“When one player does something well on the pitch, you have 23 girls screaming out saying bravo, well done,” Aitken said.
“It’s clear to see, even watching from afar, that they’re comfortable because they’re with their best friends and their Australia family.”
The Young Matildas are currently training at the Mexican Football Federation’s facilities in similar conditions to what they will play during the tournament. Temperatures are averaging 27-28 degrees, a climate they would have faced regularly in Australia.
The Young Matildas training in sunny Mexico. (Twitter: @TheMatildas)
The squad is looking forward to the prospect of playing in front of a packed crowd against the hosts on opening day. After that, they're also undoubtedly excited about the opportunity to play against the likes of Brazil and Spain.
“The words being used in our group is that we’re excited to see the girls not only play against Spain and Brazil but play in front of what hopefully is a massive crowd for a World Cup opener,” Aitken said.
“It’s an opportunity to test themselves against the best. You look at the Spanish women’s program; it’s excellent what they’re doing.”
The size of the task ahead hasn’t fazed the team. Blayney received praises for her attacking brand of football during the recent Young Matildas fixtures. The plan is to continue this identity leading into the tournament.
The Young Matildas will face host nation Costa Rica, Spain, and Brazil. (Twitter: @FIFAWWC)
“It’s going to be an attacking style. We want to be aggressive going forward; we want to be aggressive to win the ball back and score as many goals as possible,” Aitken continued.
“We’re not going to be fazed by the opponent; we want to play our way.”
Attacking football is being promised, and Australia's brightest young talents will face other top nations worldwide. There are plenty of reasons for fans to be excited about this upcoming tournament.
Whilst everyone involved in the squad is also aware of how big a task is in front of them, the confidence is growing daily. As the prospect of representing their nation at a World Cup edges closer, the size and meaning of this tournament are not lost on this group.
“We grow in confidence after each session. It’s unbelievable how, even myself, I’ll think they’re (players) at their max peak, I’ll be thinking that was a top session, that was excellent, they’re going to be great. But then you do another session the next day, and things get better and better,” Aitken said.
“You see how tall the girls are standing when they have the Australia logo, and then when you see them put their jerseys on, it’s like they grow another foot. It’s crazy how the coat of arms makes people react, and it’s the same when I put my gear on every morning, and I’m buzzing.
The Young Matildas recently recorded a win over Liga MX Femenil side Pumas. (Twitter: @FootballAUS)
“There’s plenty of Aussie DNA from top management to the youngest players; they know what it means to play for their country.”
There was high praise from Tim for the backroom staff as a whole and the work being put in to ensure the girls are in the best possible position they can be. He also spoke about their unity, similar to what he had seen from the playing group.
“I do a lot of the technical work with the team while Leah and Rado (Vidosic) do more of the tactical side. I’m honoured to be a part of it, to be able to work with Leah and Rado,” he said.
“We talk about how close the group of players are, and it would be unfair of us to ask them to be close if we weren’t, and it is a tight group of staff.
“Georgia (Brown) and the medical staff have been excellent getting the girls settled so quickly, sleeping the whole night, and being prepared to train at their best, and they’ve been excellent.”
Clearly, those behind the scenes have left no stone unturned throughout the course of preparation, and fans can be confident that this squad is primed and ready to face the world’s best.
The Young Matildas will play a friendly against Mexico’s under 20s, who will be in Group B, on July 29, before the final squad is announced and they head to Costa Rica. From there, everyone involved will be counting down the minutes, as they already are, for the opening match.
There's a buzz in the atmosphere from this Young Matildas team, and there is undoubtedly a hunger to go and make their country proud.
“In the staff, we get a shiver when we think about the opportunity we’ve got. We want to compete and put in place the kind of football we’re trying to teach the girls. We’re confident they’re going to be able to do that against excellent opponents,” Aitken said.
“What fans can expect from us is a proper Australian performance. We’re going to do the country proud, and we’re going to play good football while we do it. We want to do so well.”
The tournament's opening match against Costa Rica will take place on Thursday, August 11 at 12pm AEST, with the Brazil game on Sunday, August 14 at 6am AEST before the group stage finishes with Spain on Wednesday, August 17 at 12pm AEST.
All games will be live and free on SBS. With friendly kick-off times for Australian viewers, there is a genuine opportunity to see the country’s stars of tomorrow on the world stage and possibly produce something remarkable.
If you would like to read writer Cody Ojeda's recent summation of the Matildas previous FIFA international window, click here.