Shortcuts / 15 August 2023

The Matildas

The Matildas are having their best-ever World Cup performance progressing through to the final 4. It’s a huge moment for sport in Australia, so in this Squiz Shortcut, we get you across the history of our national women’s football team, coach Tony Gustavsson’s game plan, and how we got to this big moment.

Australia is really into this, right?
It really seems football’s popularity has reached an all-time high in Oz. Like, remember when we referred to the game as soccer? 

And the Matildas have come quite a long way…
They have – ever since our national women’s soccer team was first established back in the 1970s. It was previously thought that their first official international match was in October 1979 – but it’s recently come to light that an earlier match was played by the Aussie women in Hong Kong in 1975 – that was in the first Asian Women’s Cup. 

What were they called back then?
They weren’t called ‘the Matildas’ until it was chosen by popular vote in 1995 in a competition run by public broadcaster SBS. And it’s worth reflecting that in the latter part of last century, women’s soccer didn’t get a lot of support or attention in Australia.

Why not?
It was being played at a community level – and that’s only continued to build in the 2000s – but the funding wasn’t there to support the game at the elite level. At that time, there were stories of players having to pay their own way to compete overseas or to fundraise. In 1999, the Matildas even participated in a nude calendar to raise funds.

Is that when the Matildas start making a name for themselves?
Yep – that calendar went the 1999 equivalent of viral… And, of course, there was the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but they were eliminated in the knockout rounds. But more and more Aussies were starting to clue into the Matildas.

So how did we get from there to the 2023 World Cup?
Let’s roll the clock forward to 2020 when 2 important things happened. The first is that Australia was announced as the co-host of the 2023 FIFA World Cup alongside New Zealand. That was huge. 

And the second thing?
That same year, the Matildas got a new coach: a Swedish man named Tony Gustavsson. He was a professional player in Sweden, but before the Matildas, he was best known as an assistant coach for the US women’s team – or the Coach Beard of the team, for Ted Lasso fans…

Was the US team any good? 
Umm, they were the best… If you know anything about women’s football, you know that the US team have dominated the sport. While Gustavsson was there as assistant coach, they won the last 2 World Cups, in 2019 and 2015.

And the Matildas wanted a bit of that winning magic?
Absolutely. And as soon as Tony Gustavsson became the Aussie coach, he was asked about the 2023 World Cup and whether he thought it was something we could win. And right from that start, he said that was the plan. And Gustavsson has spent 3 years working towards it.

So when Gustavsson took on the job, he was handed a report by Football Australia, with all this data about the gap in Australian women’s football.

What did it say?
It included 3 hard truths: one was that even though the Matildas had some really strong key players, the squad lacked depth. The second issue was that reliance on key players created a huge risk if any of them got injured. And the final point was that the Matildas weren’t playing enough matches against other top teams.

So Gustavsson addressed those issues?
He sure did – he brought in a lot of young players, and he reduced the workload of the stars. And he scheduled a lot of matches against the world’s top teams.

And how did we go?
The Matildas lost a lot of games… But the plan has come together and they’ve really improved. Over the last 9 months, we’ve beaten the top teams, including England’s Lionesses who we face tomorrow night.

So they’ve hit their peak at the right time?
Geez we hope so… Something you hear a lot when you take an analytics-based approach to coaching is to trust the process.

It seems to be paying off…
The Matildas have already exceeded expectations by making it into the semi-finals, so whatever the outcome, it’s already one of the biggest moments in Australia’s sporting history.

OK, I trust the process… 
Yep. Let’s do it, Matildas… 

Guardian Australia journo Kieran Pender’s excellent writing on all things Matildas.

Matildas: The World at Our Feet – Disney+

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