Could the Matildas be Australia’s most-loved national team?
There is certainly a wave of positivity surrounding the squad that very few other Australian sides can match, across all codes, and the Matildas are hoping that support spurs them on to an unprecedented Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro.
The Matildas, ranked fifth in the world and coming off an eye-catching run to the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals, are aiming to become the first Australian football side to claim an Olympic podium spot.
And having been handed a manageable group draw, alongside Germany, Canada and Zimbabwe, Alen Stajcic’s team is quietly confident of going deep into the competition.
“We’re striving to become a world-class team,” coach Stajcic said after the draw in April.
“I think we’re close.
We’re on the verge of being a truly world-class team, and by that I mean winning medals at Olympics and World Cups. That pressure’s internal and intrinsic.”
Unlike the Australian cricket team, the Wallabies or the Socceroos, who all enjoy widespread support but must endure a constant ebb and flow of public esteem, the Matildas have accumulated nothing but goodwill due to their ferocious-but-honest playing style and ever-improving results.
Only the likes of Dan Ricciardo or the Diamonds occupy the same rarefied air when it comes to unequivocal love from the Australian public.
Can the Matildas turn the love into precious metal?
Still in high spirits on the back of a successful Olympic Qualifying campaign and promising performances against New Zealand in June, the side is well aware it is going to have to raise the bar again to compete at the pinnacle.
The tight bond the team has forged over recent years is vital to the team’s on-field cohesion with much of the squad now playing in foreign leagues.
Stajcic has been instrumental, instilling an aura of positivity and a family vibe among the players.
Striker Kyah Simon said this mindset is reflected on the pitch.
“We’ve worked from the bottom up in terms of our team tactics, everyone being on the same page and putting the work in to make sure we go out and play with pride and to our potential,” she told ABC Grandstand.
It is that fierce pride that gives Australia an edge over its opponents, according to Simon.
“We fight for one another, we fight for our families, friends, coaches and people who have supported us to get to were we are today,” she said.
Like the rest of her teammates, the thought of an Olympic medal gets Simon very excited.
“It brings a smile to my face and kind of gives me butterflies to think of it,” she said.
Key players to watch in Rio
Lisa De Vanna
The only player with Olympics experience in the current Matildas squad needs no introduction.
She has over 100 caps for her country, was the first Australian to score in three consecutive World Cups and is also ranked inside the W-League’s top six all-time leading goal scorers.
The forward converted the winning penalty goal in last season’s Brisbane v Melbourne semi-final, securing City’s spot in the grand final in their inaugural season, a side she built from the ground up with coach Joe Montemurro.
De Vanna can lay claim to being one of Australia’s most passionate athletes, and has been happy to announce publically she does not intend to leave Rio without a medal.
Named in the all-star squads at the last two World Cups, Elise Kellond-Knight has undoubtedly emerged as one of the key cogs in the Matildas machine.
Operating from the base of midfield, ‘K-K’ shields the back four with her energetic running and tough-tackling, but it is in possession she offers most value.
Extremely comfortable with the ball at her feet, the 25-year-old Turbine Potsdam star – who developed her game at the Brisbane Roar – acts as the hub of most of Australia’s passing moves, distributing the ball with precision and, when needed, a touch of flair.
The battling spirit of the Matildas is perfectly epitomised by one player; 87-cap veteran Clare Polkinghorne.
This aggressive, hard-running, no-nonsense defender somehow manages to be intimidating to opponents while always maintaining an air of calm control.
The co-captain will be as hungry as any member of the squad for success in Rio, too, having not played a minute at the 2015 World Cup after picking up an injury just before the tournament.
On the record books as the first indigenous woman to score for Australia, the experienced Simon has proved her calibre on the big stage time and time again.
Currently on the books of US club Boston Breakers, the striker regularly shows her composure at the death, scoring three goals in last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup and sealing Australia’s most memorable win in the competition against Brazil, with 10 minutes left on the clock in the round of 16.
She picked up a hat-trick in the Matildas 9-0 onslaught of Vietnam back in March and makes a huge difference to the side, whether as a starter or an impact substitute.
The coach: Alen Stajcic
Two-time W-League coach of the year Alen Stajcic spent six years coaching Sydney FC Women’s side.
During that time, Sydney finished as semi-finalists three times, grand finalists once and champions twice, with a third place at the 2013 FIFA Club World Championships.
He was appointed head coach of the Matildas after leading them to the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup final on short notice as caretaker coach.
Since then the Matildas’ progression has been both rapid and impressive, and they now head into the Rio Games as one of the sides to watch.
Group E opponents
Australia’s group is by no means a cakewalk, but the format of the competition means it can remain optimistic about progressing to the knock-out stages.
A total of 12 sides in Rio will form three groups, with the top two teams in each group and the two best third-placed teams all moving through to the quarter-finals.
With eight out of the 12 sides going through, the focus is likely to be on who can win the groups and earn an (on paper) easier quarter-final match-up.
Canada (August 4)
Led by legendary striker Christine Sinclair, who has an unbelievable 162 international goals to her name, Canada is growing as an international force.
The Canucks romped their way through the qualification process, with massive wins over the likes of Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala, and impressed at the 2015 World Cup on home soil in making it through to the quarter-finals.
If Australia can take three points from this opening game, however, it will go a long way to setting up a successful tournament.
Germany (August 7)
Three-time bronze medallist Germany is currently ranked number two in the world, looms as one of the tournament favourites and is likely to be Australia’s toughest opponent in the group stage.
Influential captain and 2014 world player of the year Nadine Kessler recently retired due to injury, but there is plenty of talent remaining, in midfield especially, to trouble any side in the competition.
Zimbabwe (August 10)
The 95th-ranked Africans should, in theory, not pose a problem for the Matildas, and present the best opportunity to claim all three points.
The Zimbabweans had a rough passage to Rio and were even thrown out of qualifying at one point for not travelling to Ivory Coast, but they were later re-instated, before the Ivorians themselves withdrew.
They did defeat African powerhouses Cameroon over two legs to qualify, though, so should not be taken too lightly.
As it has been for so long in women’s football, the USA will be the team to beat in Rio. And it can thank Australia for eliminating one of its great rivals, Japan, in qualifying.
Though 10 of the squad that took the US to victory at the 2015 World Cup have retired or are unavailable for the Olympics, the majority of players who started the 2015 final will be in Rio.
If anything, an influx of young talent should revitalise the side and potentially lay the foundations for a new era of dominance.
Ranked third in the world, France boasts a battle-hardened squad that is looking to improve on tournament results and establish itself as a power in the women’s game.
The French showed their potential at the 2015 World Cup, coming through a strong group to advance to the quarter-finals, where they dominated Germany but ended up losing in a penalty shoot-out.
They are good enough to be ranked as a tournament dark horse, if they can make it safely out of a tough group that includes the US and Colombia.
This powerhouse has dominated South American football but often fallen just short in World Cups and Olympic tournaments.
The only time it failed to make the semi-finals at the Games was last time around, in fact, but with home advantage in Rio, it could be hard to stop.
The Brazilians, led by the brilliant Marta, will also be looking for revenge against the Matildas, who sensationally beat them in the round of 16 at last year’s World Cup.
Can the Matildas do it? Keys to success
- Australia is one of the more all-purpose teams in the competition, and this should be used to its advantage. Against sides that like to maintain possession, the Matildas can use their energy and toughness to get in their faces and disrupt flow. When facing a team that likes to play more direct football, like Germany or Canada, they have the technique to keep the ball for long periods in order to frustrate and wear the opponents down.
- Likewise, the Matildas have excellent depth, even taking into consideration the relatively small squad sizes in Rio. The setup of the team can be altered from game to game, or even mid-match, by rotating the roster and utilising this squad strength. When pace on the counter attack is required, there is plenty of speed available, while there are also an abundance of strong defenders when it is time to shut up shop.
- The Matildas have perhaps been guilty of tactical naïveté in the past, at least in comparison to the traditional footballing powers. The ability to carry out the coach’s instructions to the letter, then switch tactics or formation when required, for a full 90 minutes without losing shape or concentration, is what separates the quarter-finalists from medal contenders in big competitions. With the level of professionalism constantly improving among the playing group, which now has plenty of overseas experience, this Olympic Games could be where the side steps up in that regard.
- The presence of Lisa de Vanna, an experienced Olympian among a squad of fresh faces, is a hugely important factor. With a smattering of young stars in the mix, it will be up to her and several other older heads to keep them calm, but focused.