It’s as fierce a rivalry as any in women’s football: Australia v Brazil. In 2016 hosts Brazil knocked the Matildas out of the Olympics via the penalty spot; in Canada the year before, Kyah Simon’s 80th-minute winner ended As Canarinhas’ World Cup in the round of 16. In 2011 the two sides faced off in Monchengladbach in the group stage with Brazil emerging narrow winners, while Australia’s 2007 World Cup came to an abrupt halt at the quarter-final stage courtesy a 3-2 loss.
And if that feels like ancient history, four of the five goalscorers that day – Formiga, Marta, Lisa De Vanna and Cristiane – are all at this World Cup. With 619 caps between them, they are champions of the game – with tremendous experience, and even longer memories.
At the 2017 Tournament of Nations, Australia humbled the Brazilians 6-1, with De Vanna and Caitlin Foord the chief tormentors that day. Ranked just one spot apart, it helped catapult the Australia’s to their best ranking of fourth in the world.
Now teammates at Orlando Pride in the NWSL, Emily van Egmond and Alanna Kennedy have been training week-in, week-out this year with six-time world player of the year Marta and her compatriot Camila. Not that it has helped temper the emotions.
“We have the rivalry with Brazil now at the last two major tournaments, where we knocked them out and they knocked us out,” Kennedy told Guardian Australia. “But when you’re on the field I don’t give a shit who [Marta] is – she’s an opponent and I want to beat her.”
Whether or not Marta plays is just one of the engrossing subplots to this Group C clash. The 33-year-old got through light training on Tuesday, the first time she’s joined her teammates since she injured her left thigh in May.
Australia have their own niggles, with Elise Kellond-Knight deemed not fit enough for the opening game, and Clare Polkinghorne, De Vanna and Foord also pulling up with minor knocks sustained during the shock loss to Italy and unable to train on Wednesday.
Milicic promised post-match his staff would look at possible changes to personnel for the second game. Kellond-Knight or Katrina Gorry – second-half substitutes in Valenciennes – could both feature more prominently, while Polkinghorne’s position could be under threat, regardless of injury.
Despite systemic under-support for the women’s game in Brazil – a presidential decree famously banned women from playing football from 1941 to 79 – and a poor run of nine games without a win pre-tournament, the national side is still packed with remarkable figures.
At 41 years young the redoubtable Formiga lined up in midfield for Brazil in their opener against Jamaica. There have only been eight Women’s World Cups – Formiga has played at seven of them. Her teammate from the 1995 edition in Sweden, Meg, is now 63. 150 players at the France tournament weren’t even born when she debuted.
Six of the weekend’s starting XI were over 30 – it’s the criticism of this Brazilian side that for many their best days are in the past. But in players like Debinha and Barcelona’s Andressa there are still plenty of willing workers, with talented youngsters like Geyse and Daiane coming through the ranks.
It’s hard to know how much to take from Brazil’s 3-0 win over Jamaica. On one hand, but for a missed penalty and a series of superb saves from teenager Sydney Schneider, it could have been a rout. Yet Brazil also offered up plenty of chances for the Reggae Girlz, with Sam Kerr no doubt keenly watching the joy Khadija Shaw found against an at-times sloppy backline.
Coach Vadão lined up in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 in Grenoble. It could offer opportunities between the lines for a tricky playmaker like Foord, Tameka Yallop or Gorry, with a likely-to-return Kellond-Knight able to distribute passes calmly from a deep-lying position.
Such are the permutations of a six-group World Cup where as many as three teams can go through, it makes it hard to predict how both sides will approach the fixture. Will the conservative Vadão set up to play for a point? Will Brazil look to hit more on the counter, given Ante Milicic’s expressed intent to continue to attack?
As deflating as the late Barbara Bonansea winner was to the Matildas, a win here and they could yet top the group, earning themselves a week’s respite and a round of 16 clash at the same stadium. Equally, even a second loss wouldn’t condemn the Matildas to an early exit. The best current third-placed team only has one point, and Australia will still have Jamaica to play.
But with so much on the line, the likely return of the greatest-ever female player, and the re-commencement of a fierce footballing rivalry, it’s unlikely the Matildas will need to dig too deeply for motivation.