There’s a narrative that national teams understandably try to claim for themselves during World Cup years. That narrative goes something like this: Since our inception, we have slowly climbed the mountain, making slow, sure strides toward the summit. There are hiccups and rockslides and detours and so on, but for a generation—or, really, for as long as it takes—the journey is what’s more important. And after climbing, marching, slowly but surely, this team has now reached the mountaintop. All that’s really left to do now is prove that we are where we say we are. This will be Australia’s narrative over the next few weeks, and it’s one that, indeed, I want to believe.
After not qualifying for the 1991 Women’s World Cup, the Matildas competed in the next three. This, surely, was progress. In 2006, Australia hightailed out of the Oceania Football Confederation for the Asia Football Confederation, where they faced better competition en route to World Cup and Olympic qualification. In the 2007 World Cup—their fourth—Australia made it out of their group for the first time ever. Again, yes, progress.
In 2010, Australia beat Japan in the Asia Football Confederation’s Women’s Asian Cup semifinal to earn a spot in the 2011 World Cup. In the Asian Cup final, Australia beat defending tournament champions North Korea on penalties. The Matildas didn’t miss once.
In 2011, Australia traveled to Germany for the 2011 World Cup as the reigning queens of Asia. Like many teams that haven’t quite made it to the summit yet, Australia took a slew of kids to the tournament, six in teenagers all. They played well, with the reckless fearlessness of youth, but after finishing second in their group behind Brazil, they crashed out in the quarterfinal against Sweden. Japan, whom they beat the year before, would go on to be crowned world champions.
The climb couldn’t even be halted by manager Hesterine De Reus, against whom the young squad mutinied. She was removed in April 2014, but just a month later, longtime national youth coach Alen Stajcic helmed the Matildas at the Asian Cup. In the group stage, Australian led Japan with 20 minutes to play, but allowed them to come back to draw. They lost to Japan 1-0 four matches later, in the final. Still, they qualified for this year’s World Cup by competing and acquitting themselves against one of the very best teams the sport had to offer.
Most of their players play abroad, and many play in America, but last year, all but one player came back home to Australia to prepare for the World Cup. They’ve been in good form, and not even Stajcic’s controversial cutting of Australia’s all-time leading goalscorer, Kate Gill, just weeks before this year’s tournament, is keeping their foes from taking them seriously in June. But let’s talk about those foes.
Australia, it appears, are tragic victims of circumstance. They were drawn in Group D, this year’s Group of Death. Australia are so close to the summit of international soccer, but to get there, they’ll have to do battle with the United States of America, Sweden, and Nigeria, an African team whose ascension rivals Australia’s own.
The Matildas have an outside shot of going deep in the tournament, but in the Group of Death, they’re expected to lose to the USWNT and Sweden. A single point in either match, however, or a couple of close losses when coupled with a win against Nigeria, would likely see Australia finish third and advancing. Second place in the group would probably pit them in the Round of 16 against superpowers Brazil, but third would likely match them against host side Canada, or even China—talented but beatable teams. In an irony for a team that has climbed for so long, one last setback might be what finally gets them to the top.
Goalkeepers: Mackenzie Arnold (Perth Glory), Melissa Barbieri (Adelaide United), Lydia Williams (Washington Spirit).
Defenders: Laura Alleway (Brisbane Roar), Stephanie Catley (Melbourne Victory), Elise Kellond-Knight (Brisbane Roar), Alanna Kennedy (Perth Glory), Teresa Polias (Sydney FC), Clare Polkinghorne (Brisbane Roar), Hayley Raso (Brisbane Roar), Servet Uzunlar (Sydney FC).
Midfielders: Nicola Bolger (Sydney FC), Tameka Butt (Brisbane Roar), Katrina Gorry (Brisbane Roar), Emily van Egmond (Newcastle Jets).
Forwards: Larissa Crummer (Brisbane Roar), Lisa De Vanna (Melbourne Victory), Caitlin Foord (Perth Glory), Michelle Heyman (Canberra United), Samantha Kerr (Perth Glory), Leena Khamis (Sydney FC), Kyah Simon, (Sydney FC), Ashleigh Sykes (Canberra United).
If nothing else, Australia are fun. This, after all, is a team brimming with talent, with actual superstars, with 20-year-olds who are now entering their second World Cup, and with a manager in Stajcic who watched these women grow up. There is trust there. There is confidence, and belief. Most importantly, there are goalscorers all over the pitch.
Their 4-3-3 allows them to load up in attack and overwhelm defenses. The plan for over a decade now has been in part to more or less force balls through to Gill and her partner-in-crime, 30-year-old forward Lisa De Vanna. De Vanna’s a delightfully wasteful whirlwind of a striker, known for her world-class pace and dribbling ability that gets her in scoring position; unfortunately, she’s just as known for her predilection for letting herself down in on goal. She is, however, one of the best players in the world, and anyway, she sometimes does things like this:
Flanking De Vanna will be Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord. Kerr, just 21, will be one of the better players in the tournament. Foord, at 20, won the award for best young player in the 2011 World Cup at just 16.
The trio, along with Michelle Heyman and Kyah Simon, are athletic and looking to get behind the defense in order to cross balls into the box or go to goal themselves. Tameka Butt and the 4-foot-10 Katrina Gorry are creative forces in central midfield who are free to join in the attack, because at 5-foot-10, Emily van Egmond is a physical, all-action presence providing cover in the middle of the pitch. This is the Group of Death, but the Matildas are stacked, and they have goals in them.
At just 26, co-captain Claire Polkinghorne is one of the eldest on this team, and she’s expected to hold down the back line as her team inevitably overextends. But she doesn’t have much help outside of standout left back Elise Kellond-Knight.
Australia’s biggest weakness is their tendency to overextend themselves, and historically as well as lately, this a team that won’t and can’t stop conceding goals. (They’ve won 12 of their last 18, but just three months ago, for instance, World Cup dark horses England smacked them 3-0 in the Cyprus Women’s Cup, a tuneup tournament.) This should be alarming, because between the United States, Sweden, and Nigeria, Australia will have to play and stop as many as eight of the greatest strikers that currently grace the sport. Shit can and might get out of hand. It’s even worse when you account for Australia’s first-choice keeper, Lydia Williams, who is still racing back from an ACL injury.
For the 10th-best team in the world to avoid embarrassment, they’ll have to defend as a team, sacrificing their free-flowing, fearless style. They have enough talent on the field that the goals will still come. They won’t win this year, either, but with a young, experienced, dangerous team of players, there’s no reason why Australia can’t break some hearts before bowing out.
June 8, 7:30 p.m.: United States vs. Australia at Winnipeg Stadium
June 12, 8 p.m.: Australia vs. Nigeria at Winnipeg Stadium
June 16, 8 p.m.: Australia vs. Sweden at Commonwealth Stadium
All times Eastern