For a deflated Ante Milicic post-match, the Matildas’ round of 16 elimination was the kind of kick in the teeth that makes you question your involvement in football. “I’ve been involved with games as a player, a coach, sitting at home watching games and I won’t fall in love with the game after tonight,” the coach said. “Gee that’s hurt me.”
As World Cup exits go it was particularly devastating. Here is a group of players, beloved for their ability to persevere irrespective of the off-field dramas threatening to engulf them; a coach considered one of Australia’s most promising; and a captain, a genuinely world-class striker, looking to drag Australia with her to the apex of world football.
But then there was a penalty decision, inexplicably overturned, and a red card, inconceivably awarded. Despite major decisions going against them, 11 women in gold simply refused to let their chance at World Cup glory be unjustly taken away.
Back up off the canvas, from 2-0 down against Brazil and contemplating elimination the Matildas triumphantly announced themselves under Milicic. A fleeting moment of joie de vivre was so perfectly captured by Sam Kerr’s “suck on that” epigram, which briefly threatened as a launchpad for something special.
And while against Norway the Matildas burnished their reputation with courageous, high-speed, high-technique attacks – as they have throughout every game at the tournament – they also offered reminders in almost equal proportion that this team never properly hit its straps.
Like Wordsworth’s Prelude, the Matildas under Milicic were a stunning promise of something much greater to come. The deep frustration was that it never did.
Milicic spoke repeatedly with near paternal reverence for the football brain of Elise Kellond-Knight – the midfield metronome who would act as the on-field heartbeat of his philosophy, controlling play, shielding the defence, dictating tempo.
The only Australian selected by Fifa’s technical study group in back-to-back World Cup All-Star teams never started a match in her preferred midfield role. Niggling injuries blighted Kellond-Knight’s campaign, as they did the Matildas generally, with defensive continuity most obviously affected.
As Milicic patiently reminded us, his team out-possessed, out-passed, out-created their opponents throughout the tournament. This wasn’t a squad built to merely out-scrap more fancied opponents: it wanted to out-football them.
Perhaps it was hubristic of Milicic to think he could imprint all this in just five months. In fairness, he was only playing the cards he was handed by Football Federation Australia. But as the critics back home clamber over each other in the rush towards incandescently obvious “solutions”, Australian football fans should take a deep breath.
Women’s football is at the beginning of an explosion. Over the past two years, some of the giant clubs of the world game – with revenues approaching billions – have belatedly discovered the women’s game.
In Italy, for the first time nearly 40,000 spectators watched a Juventus women’s team take on rivals Fiorentina. In Spain, more than 60,000 watched Atlético Madrid play Barcelona. In the Uefa Women’s Champions League in recent seasons players such as Ada Hegerberg, Vivianne Miedema or Pernille Harder have announced themselves to the world.
Of the nine European nations involved at France 2019, eight qualified for the knockout stages, with only Scotland missing out courtesy a giant VAR-sized asterisk. In coming months many of Australia’s stars will be announced at some of Europe’s top clubs – the era of players like Kerr in the W-League is over.
While fans naturally only see a tournament exit through the prism of their team’s own heartbreak, it’s important to step back and genuinely contemplate whether an incredibly hard-working and well-organised Norway deserved to have been eliminated either.
For Australia, the coup de grâce may have come from ice-cold Scandinavians via the penalty spot, but the body blows had accumulated throughout the tournament, and arguably well before then.
The loss to Italy, albeit via a 95th-minute winner, was a canary in the coal mine. At 1-0 up the Matildas simply failed to dictate the play, to control the match. Milicic spoke of his side’s impatience or anxiety in possession. Passes from the back put a makeshift midfield under pressure. Turnovers in midfield put a creaking defence under heat.
Against Brazil the Matildas brought the battle, against Jamaica the clinical urgency. But the composed fluidity the coach desired never arrived.
Knee-jerk analyses will provide easy answers. Milicic failed, the players failed, FFA failed with its whole bungling of the Alen Stajcic sacking. But how to answer bigger questions such as why Australia’s central defensive stocks were so parlously threadbare?
What are the development pathways from NPL to W-League level; can a 14-game domestic season compete internationally; is there sufficient elite-level investment happening in Australia to keep stride with a rapidly-awakening Europe?
The detailed, forensic dissection of this campaign and its key takeaways can’t be drafted in 140 characters or summarised in a two-minute segment on TV – it requires weeks, possibly months.
More tangible in the immediate term though is the heartbreak felt by the Matildas themselves. Players such as Kyah Simon or Laura Alleway, for whom injury meant no part in the tournament. Players like Steph Catley or Caitlin Foord and their 21 compatriots who ran countless kilometres, travelled countless more, and rarely at the time of asking were found wanting.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Foord. “We came here to win the World Cup and that dream is over now.”