The sky isn’t falling, but Matildas’ defeats offer reminders – and opportunities – for Australian football

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

The Matildas’ heavy defeats against Germany and the Netherlands represented a baptism of fire on their return to the international scene, but also provided lessons – and opportunities – for the entire Australian football ecosystem.

The Matildas’ inglorious return to international football continued in the early hours of Wednesday morning, downed 5-0 by the Netherlands in Nijmegen just days after going down 5-2 to Germany. 

The two defeats undoubtedly will force a reassessment of expectations for the Matildas amongst the wider zeitgeist heading into the Tokyo Olympics – but a level of context and nuance is required before declarations that the sky is falling. 

New coach Tony Gustavsson got his first in-person chance to put his side through their paces for the first time just last week and while it must be acknowledged that they are in club season and thus not totally without match minutes, this was the first time the Matildas themselves had assembled as a unit in over a year. 

Said squad was missing key European-based figures such as Ellie Carpenter, Amy Harrison, Kyah Simon and Steph Catley, while restrictions on squad selection due to the logistical challenges of COVID-19 also meant Gustavsson was also unable to select standout W-League players such as Tameka Yallop, Angie Beard, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Remy Siemsen.

Defending Olympic champion Germany and reigning European champion and vanquished World Cup finalist the Netherlands, who both returned to action earlier this year, aren’t exactly tin can opposition either. In fact, they’re the type of opponents the Matildas need to be playing if they are to consistently match it with the world’s best.

Thus, while the two defeats represent reminders of the challenges ahead – they don’t yet represent a cataclysm.

Things can and likely will improve as the gears on the Matildas’ machine slowly grind back to life. 

Whether they improve enough to enable a genuine assault on the 2023 Women’s World Cup looms as perhaps the biggest story in Australian football over the next few years – especially with Football Australia increasingly loading more and more of their eggs into the Matilda basket. 

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some long-term takeaways from the defeats to technically superb Germany and the Netherlands outfits; reminders of the challenges and opportunities that exist for Australia’s women in the years and even decades ahead. 

Since the 2015 World Cup, the Matildas have played European opponents on 15 occasions. Under multiple coaching staffs, they have won twice, drawn five times and lost eight. The last triumph coming against Norway in 2018 – with the Norwegians avenging themselves in brutal fashion in the Round of 16 at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. 

The technical skill and innate understanding of the nuances of football that European nations are increasingly demonstrating at a senior women’s level – close control, decision making, where to be, how to get there, where your teammates are, and where they should be – represent a significant challenge. 

They aren’t abilities able to be built to a world-class standard simply by osmosis at a senior level. 

Playing in leagues where one is constantly challenged in both training and matches by players with them will undoubtedly raise them to some degree – which is why the swathe of Matildas heading to Europe is vital for Australia’s hopes of impressing ahead of 2023 – but their real development comes when players are still young, learning the game and developing habits and instincts. 

In the street and the park, they come naturally: there being no real stakes beyond the bruising of egos, youngsters are free to attempt to emulate their heroes on the screen again and again with minimal fuss. 

But in the modern world, it’s both impractical and unrealistic to rest a nation’s developmental hopes on the emergence of a golden generation from the streets. Amongst other factors, child protection issues mean parents are increasingly recalcitrant to allow their children to roam and there is always a need for club and national teams staff to identify talent. 

Junior development and the fostering of girl’s pathways are already a focus of Football Australia. The organisation recently released a performance gap report for the women’s game where they identified a number of shortcomings in the pathway that included more fixtures against elite and diverse opposition at a senior level as well as more games at a junior level. 

But, combined with other well-documented limiting factors on development such as the prohibitive cost of playing at elite levels, the phenomena of constant ‘club shopping’, and a lack of facilities and resourcing (especially for girl’s teams), the Australian developmental pathway is not conducive to the development of players with the technical ability of those in Europe.

To ensure the widespread proliferation of technical and tactical awareness beyond the relative few that are naturally blessed with such gifts, there needs to be an active focus and encouragement of these qualities within the increased opportunities to train and play they are given. 

Antithetical as it may be in a sporting context, they shouldn’t be sidelined in the pursuit of results – which carries the disproportionate empowerment of more physically developed youngsters that can deliver them and a subsequent focus on leveraging those advantages. 

The process of implementing the cultural shift that comes with these ideals isn’t a simple process. It’s a generational challenge – meaning that the major beneficiaries of any changes implemented may not even have been born yet. 

And though the development of smart, technical players doesn’t carry any inherent conflicts with the concept – and the world’s best tactical players are also often amongst its fittest – the Australian cultural and spiritual tradition of grittiness and a ‘never say die’ attitude is inherently easier to project onto physically dominant teams and players. 

Nonetheless, with the explosion of girl’s taking up football, the influx of sponsors and money to the game and the 2023-driven push for more infrastructure and investment, the scope is there for Australia to look at and assess how it develops its next cohort of Matildas. 

As the current generation of champions such as Sam Kerr, Hayley Raso, Aivi Luik and Lydia Williams look to rally and do all they can to deliver history in 2023, the Germany and Netherlands defeats offer a reminder of the direction of women’s football – and what Australia can do to ensure it isn’t left behind. 

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