This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s World Cup 2023 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 July.
Never before has there been more pre-tournament excitement surrounding an Australian national football team. A World Cup on home soil, a squad boasting a golden generation of players and an encouraging run of sustained good form have piqued interest and heightened anticipation in a country where football usually struggles for relevance.
Led by their talismanic captain, Sam Kerr, the team have sent expectations soaring, but it hasn’t always been so with Tony Gustavsson at the helm. Defensive frailties blighted the coach’s early tenure and, despite a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, a disastrous exit at the quarter-final stage of the 2022 Asian Cup raised questions about the Swede’s ability to mount a credible World Cup challenge.
Gustavsson has sought to move beyond a “just give it to Kerr” mentality and tried to avoid an overreliance on his star striker by giving game time to squad players wherever possible – not always to great success. A 7-0 defeat to Spain in June last year proved something of a nadir after he sent out an inexperienced team to the slaughter in Huelva. But the benefits of that policy may finally be coming to fruition, and the Matildas have since compiled a run of eight wins out of their last nine, including victories over top-10 teams Sweden, Spain and England – not always with a full-strength side.
“Sometimes you’re not as bad as people say you are when you lose, but you’re not as good as people say you are when you win, either,” Gustavsson said after fielding a side heavily weakened by injury in the 2-0 win over England in April. “We know on any given day, we might not have the best team, but we can beat the best teams.” And with mixed results giving way to a solid run of form, the suggestion is that Australia may just be timing their run to perfection.
The charismatic Gustavsson arrived in the hot seat in January 2021 with a big grin and goofy nature that belied a reputation for tactical astuteness. His work as Jill Ellis’s assistant was instrumental in the USA’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019 and, since taking over as the Matildas’ head coach, he has not been afraid to experiment tactically. He played three at the back at the Tokyo Olympics, with a degree of success, but has since seemingly settled on a back four in a more conventional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. “There’s a lot of potential here, they have shown their qualities, but I also think that together I can take them to the next level,” he said when he took the job.
There are few, if any, plaudits left to describe the goalscoring phenomenon that is Kerr. The striker is in the form of her life and coming off the back of a goal-laden, double-winning season with Chelsea, during which she also claimed a host of individual accolades. She holds the Australian record for international goals – her 63rd helped down England this year in her 120th international – and, such is her importance to the Matildas, there is a sense that she holds the hopes of a nation on her shoulders heading into this tournament. “One thing is her individual qualities as a footballer but even more valuable to this team is what she gives as a person and how she carries them,” Gustavsson has said of his inspirational captain. “It’s amazing.”
In a squad of big-name players based in the European leagues, Cortnee Vine stands out as one of the few who have won their place by virtue of her performances in the domestic league. The Sydney FC flyer’s rise to prominence has been meteoric and, while she is still short of being named as a starter, she has the potential to make an impact off the bench with her direct running and ability to put opposition defenders on the back foot.
Did you know?
The Matildas might have been called the Soccertoos. Having previously been known as the Female Socceroos, in 1995 the broadcaster SBS decided to run a viewer competition to decide on a new name for the national women’s team. In addition to the Soccertoos and Matildas, the shortlist included Blue Flyers, Waratahs and Lorikeets. Viewers plumped for Matildas though – a nod to the song Waltzing Matilda – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Football is hugely popular with women and girls in Australia but high participation levels do not yet translate to similar levels of eyeballs on the domestic league (even though this year’s grand final broke attendance records). The national team is a different beast and interest in the Matildas is at least on a par with their male counterparts, the Socceroos. A World Cup on home soil has further intensified the public gaze and administrators have been keen to talk up the lasting legacy they believe the tournament will leave on the game amid the continued rise of women’s sport.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
“I think there are many teams that could win the World Cup,” England coach Sarina Wiegman said this year. “Australia is one of them.” Gustavsson’s side certainly has the potential to make a deep run on home soil and, in Kerr, they have a player who, if firing on all cylinders, may even take them all the way. Still, there remains a degree of unpredictability about this team, despite improvements, and how well they deal with any opening-night nerves may well set the tone for the rest of their campaign.