Can the Matildas waltz out of France with the World Cup?
Background photo: Warren Smith
If you liked Roald Dahl as a child or were fond of the WWE's British Bull Dog and the mascot who accompanied him to the ring, you may be confused. We're talking about the Australian national women's team here. These Matildas are the sixth best in the world according to FIFA’s World Rankings and are coming to France to set the record straight.
As the best in their confederation, the team are itching to show what they can do on the world stage. Especially as last summer’s Asian Champions ended in a loss to their old nemesis, Japan in the final.
The squad is more or less split between the United States and Europe when it comes to club football. Eight squad members feature for European teams. Thirteen ply their trade in the NWSL alongside USWNT players they famously defeated for the first time in 2017. A friendly between the two squads in Texas this past April was a rousing affair that ended 5-3 in the host's favour.
While they continue to challenge the established order in the women's game, it's valid to ask whether the split, in tandem with the onerous travel players face to train with the national team, holds them back?. Oz is 14 hours ahead of America's Atlantic coast. Flight time between Sydney and Los Angeles is 15 hours. Tokyo is 10 hours away. Japan and the defending champion United States are the last two nations to win the World Cup on the women's side. All but two Nadeshiko play their club football at home. Every member of the USWNT does. Even though the players are spread around their respective leagues, playing against one another fosters familiarity almost as much as being together. Surely, that's a disadvantage the Matildas must overcome.
Out of that need, a custom has developed. Several Australian and some American players play in Australia during the closed season in the US.
Samantha Kerr is the standout player in the Aussie side. The 25-year-old Fremantle native splits her club time between Perth Glory and Chicago Red Stars. The forward logs the frequent flyer miles but doesn't let it affect her game.
Her goals-per-game ratio won't help defenders sleep at night. In the men's game, there are two players who consistently average a goal per game. Their names are Ronaldo and Messi. Kerr's scoring rate for the Matilda's matches her club output. This year alone she’s netted four in five already for the Matildas. On 31 goals for the Matildas, she's gaining ground on Lisa de Vanna. The 34-year-old is hanging around in the squad, hoping to add one or two more to her record 47 lest things seem to easy for her young compatriot.
Meanwhile, Amy Harrison plays in the midfield for the national team while deploying as a wing-back for Washington Spirit. It's working for her as the Spirit currently top the NWSL table. Her versatility gives manager Ante Milicic tactical options with the Matildas.
After their knock-down-drag-out with the Americans, Australia suffered a 3-0 setback to Netherlands. While recent scorelines reveal the work required in their own third is lacking, it was one of those games where the Aussies simply didn't take their chances. It's not the way Milicic hoped to enter the tournament but the defeat must be put behind them to focus on their group stage opponents.
Italy, Brazil and Jamaica all represent tough competition. The Azzurri and Selecao are ranked 15th and 10th respectively by FIFA, with the Reggae Girlz 53rd. The Matildas are on a four-game winning run against Brazil, including a 3-1 victory just under a year ago and came out on top in their only encounter against Italy, nine years ago. Jamaica are something of an unknown, as the squads have never met. The islanders love to score and will test Milicic's porous defence.
If we're being honest, the Aussies can go as far in the tournament as Samantha Kerr can take them but without stronger defending, that likely won't be as far as they hope. We'll find out when they begin their tournament on Sunday against the Italians.