FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
Australia’s Matildas eye a perfect start to their 2023 campaign in front of home fans
Perched in the top 10 of the latest global rankings – tournament co-hosts Australia are favourites to finish atop their 2023 Women's World Cup group. They must stamp their authority when they tackle Vera Pauw’s Republic of Ireland in the second match of the tournament.
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, plus an encouraging run of sustained good form have piqued interest and heightened anticipation in a country where soccer 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 quarterfinal stage of the 2022 Asian Cup raised questions about the Swede’s ability to mount a credible World Cup challenge.
“Sometimes you’re not as bad as people say you are when you lose, and you’re not as good as people say you are when you win, either,” Gustavsson said.
The charismatic Gustavsson ascended to 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. Since taking over as the Matildas’ head coach, he has not been afraid to experiment tactically, with his team highly respected heading into the tournament.
“I think there are many teams that could win the World Cup,” England coach Sarina Wiegman said in the lead-up to the tournament. “Australia is one of them.”
Gustavsson’s side certainly has the potential to make a deep run on home soil. Additionally, in Chelsea forward Kerr, they have a player who – if firing on all cylinders – may even take them all the way. Single-footedly.
Still, there remains a degree of unpredictability about this team, despite improvements. How well they deal with any opening-day nerves may well set the tone for the rest of their campaign.
Until last year, the closest the Republic of Ireland had come to qualifying for a major tournament was when they made it to a playoff for Euro 2009.
But after taking the runners-up spot in their World Cup qualifying group behind Sweden, thanks largely to beating Finland home and away, they finally did it with a 1-0 playoff victory over Scotland last October.
“What heroes, what fighters, what tigers,” the team’s coach Vera Pauw said that night. The Dutchwoman, after 25 years in coaching, has made it to her first World Cup too.
The former Dutch international, who was a teammate of Wiegman for a decade, is a vastly experienced coach who had spells in charge of Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa before being appointed to the Ireland job in 2019.
Seven defeats in a row in the early part of her reign hardly augured well. Nevertheless, the team turned it around. The captain, Katie McCabe, and the midfielder Denise O’Sullivan scored 13 goals and 11 assists between them in the qualifying campaign, establishing themselves as the standout players.
McCabe, in particular, will be key for the Irish. The Dubliner, who was named Arsenal’s player of the year for the 2022/2023 season, is the face of the team. She was appointed as her country’s youngest captain at 21 years old, six years ago. Goals, assists, tackles, arguments with the referee… she brings a lot.
The team’s overall success, however, has primarily been built on a solid defence; with Louise Quinn and Niamh Fahey at its heart. Goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan has shone. After difficult moments earlier in her career, seven successive clean sheets up to last April earned her Ireland’s international player of the year award.
The two nations tackle each other on Thursday, at 12pm SA time. DM