Soccer

After a tumultuous few months marred by speculation and scrutiny, the Matildas’ fightback against Brazil showed a team determined to prove its critics wrong. By Kieran Pender.

Matildas live their ‘never say die’ motto

Australia’s Elise Kellond-Knight (left) and Karly Roestbakken celebrate after the Matildas’ World Cup win over Brazil.
Credit: REUTERS / John-Paul Pelissier

English historian Thomas Fuller once wrote that it is darkest just before the dawn. If the Australian women’s soccer team lift the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, they will look back on the 45th minute of their group stage clash with Brazil as a defining moment. Two goals down against the Brazilians in Montpellier last Thursday with half-time imminent, darkness was enveloping the Matildas.

The Australians had travelled to France as legitimate contenders to win the tournament, the first time in the nation’s footballing history that any representative team (male or female) had been so lauded. The Matildas boasted within their ranks one of the best players in the world – striker and captain Sam Kerr – and a team balancing youthful vigour and steely experience. It was widely thought that if Australia were ever to progress beyond the World Cup quarter-finals – the Matildas’ best prior result – it would be this European summer.

Yet when the 23 Australian women and a large supporting cast arrived in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for a pre-tournament friendly, storm clouds hovered on the horizon. In January, Football Federation Australia (FFA) had unexpectedly dismissed Matildas team coach Alen Stajcic. The reasons given for Stajcic’s termination were opaque: the FFA cited workplace issues and “player welfare” concerns. Rumours swirled.

Stajcic was duly replaced, by men’s national team assistant coach Ante Milicic. But the sacking remained a prominent topic. On May 31, just a week before the World Cup kicked off, FFA issued a statement conceding Stajcic’s termination had not been due to any misconduct. The governing body announced the two parties had “agreed to resolve their differences” – believed to be by way of a six-figure settlement sum, in addition to the nine months’ salary paid upon termination.

When the Matildas lost their warm-up clash with the Netherlands by three goals, doubts surfaced alongside the obvious “what if?” question – how would they be performing if Stajcic was still at the helm? On the eve of their opening World Cup encounter with Italy in the industrial northern French city of Valenciennes, captain Kerr insisted the saga “has only made us closer as a team”.

When the squad suffered a last-minute loss to the Italians, who were back at the tournament after a 20-year absence, the critics became more vocal. When a reporter asked attacker Lisa De Vanna after the match whether Stajcic’s removal was having a lingering impact, an FFA media official instructed her not to reply, saying, “That question is not good for us.” (De Vanna answered anyway.)

The atmosphere inside the Matildas camp became more combative as it moved to Montpellier. Justifiable criticism of consecutive losses from fans and commentators converged with speculation over Stajcic’s dismissal and its perceived malign influence. The conflation was partly understandable – Australia’s defensive style had been altered as a result of the regime change, and the back line was largely at fault for both defeats. But neither the Matildas nor new coach Milicic bore responsibility for the termination, and yet were evidently struggling to shake off the distraction.

An internal debate broke out within the travelling Australian press corps over whether the continued Stajcic queries were having a detrimental effect. Guardian Australia’s Richard Parkin tweeted the chatter was filtering into the camp, adding: “[The] Matildas need our support, not our frenzied projected anxiety.”

The FFA went into a PR overdrive. Socceroos coach Graham Arnold was wheeled out for a media conference, insisting the Stajcic story was “past history … it’s just noise”. The manager observed of the Matildas: “They are not ranked sixth in the world for nothing – they’ll come out and do the country proud.” In a further attempt to mend fences, Arnold and FFA chief operating officer Mark Falvo convened a dinner for the Australian press on the eve of the crucial Brazil tie.

But nothing was going to sugar-coat the situation that unfolded 24 hours later, when the Matildas conceded two first-half goals to the Canarinhas. No team had beaten Brazil when they led at half-time in a World Cup match; only one nation in the tournament’s three-decade history had successfully overturned a two-goal deficit against any opposition. As the evening’s summery rays lit the Stade de la Mosson, the Matildas were fading to black.

The knives were sharpened, hyperbolic headlines pondered. As the clock stopped on the 45th minute and 180 seconds of additional time began, the Matildas stared into the abyss of a campaign over before it had really begun. An ignominious group stage exit beckoned.

And then, the miracle of Montpellier. With the interval looming, Elise Kellond-Knight lofted a cross from the left flank, which was met by Chloe Logarzo in the Brazilian penalty area. The Washington Spirit midfielder used her head to flick the ball to Caitlin Foord, who scored from close range. 1-2. Milicic rallied his troops at half-time. “He says when you’ve got your backs against the wall, [you] come out swinging,” Logarzo recounted.

The coach’s words had the desired effect. Australia scored twice in the second half to take the lead, before fighting a valiant rearguard action to keep Brazil from equalising. 3-2. When Swiss referee Esther Staubli blew her whistle for full-time, the emotion among the Matildas was palpable. Milicic later described it as “one of the finest Australian performances that I’ve seen”.

Dawn had arrived. Kerr was ebullient. “I’m so proud of the girls, honestly, it takes a lot of heart to come back and not turn on each other,” she reflected. Kerr also had a pointed message for the doubters: “There was a lot of critics talking about us, but we’re back – so suck on that one … We don’t listen to the haters.”

The mood in the camp was suddenly buoyant. They players enjoyed a rest-day in Grenoble at the foot of the Alps, before preparing for the final group stage clash with Jamaica – which they won comfortably, 4-1. Australia will face Norway on Saturday evening local time in the round of 16, while an encounter with England likely awaits in the quarter-finals if they can see off the Norwegian “Grasshoppers”.

Much still stands between the Matildas and the hallowed World Cup trophy. But if they do progress to the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and beyond, their triumph will be all the more remarkable given the adversity they have overcome. That is partly the overriding theme of Australian soccer generally – a much-loved game that nonetheless struggles to break through in a crowded domestic sporting landscape. But defying hardship has been an ever-present narrative for Australia’s female footballers.

For decades, the Matildas have toiled against gender discrimination. It was only in 1993 that the team received a modicum of government funding, after women’s football became an Olympic sport. Even then the disparity with men’s football was stark. Retired midfielder Heather Garriock recalled to Optus Sport: “The Socceroos had a private charter. We paid for our laundry.” In 1999, the Matildas posed for a nude calendar to raise funds for the team ahead of the Sydney Olympics.

Inequality persists. The Women’s World Cup prize pool is one-thirteenth the value of what FIFA paid out after Russia 2018, despite a viewing figure ratio of 1 to 4. But slowly – albeit too slowly – progress is being made. Media coverage of the present tournament is far surpassing any prior edition, with double the number of accredited journalists in France compared with the 2015 tournament.

After the initial loss to Italy, coach Milicic remained upbeat: “It’s just … we’ve decided to go the long way about it, and the hard way about it, and you know what, maybe that’s just the Australian way.” The Matildas have overcome structural barriers, the FFA’s mishandling of the Stajcic sacking, a tumultuous start and a two-goal deficit against Brazil to remain in contention for football’s grandest prize. The team has given real meaning to the motto embroidered on their playing shirts: “Never say die.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Back from the brink". Subscribe here.

Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.