Fifa World Cup 2019: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie

LockerRoom has partnered with The Guardian and news outlets across the globe to deliver comprehensive coverage of the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup. Leading up to the kick off on June 8, we will tell you all you need to know about all 24 teams competing for women's football's biggest prize.

Richard Parkin previews Australia's Matildas.

It is fair to say that the No. 6 ranked Matildas carry the hopes of being Australia’s best-ever chance of winning a football World Cup. It’s a weigh of expectation that’s been tempered since January’s shock sacking of coach Alen Stajcic amid allegations of a toxic and stagnating environment, and significant question marks linger as to whether Ante Milicic can impress his bold footballing philosophy upon the squad with just a handful of games ahead of France.

Conversely, this makes the Matildas a genuine dark horse for the tournament. Galvanised by a frustrating past year or two, and ambitious to explore the uncharted – with a determined, likeable, close-knit squad of players – they could pull it off in style. Tactically, the system employed in April’s friendly against the USA was already a bold evolution from that seen during the recent Cup of Nations tournament. Australia surprised the world’s best team on home soil with an aggressive 4-2-4 (or lopsided 3-3-4) system that pressed the full-backs high, and played swiftly and vertically in transition, forcing the world No. 1 team into uncharacteristic mistakes. As a 5-3 scoreline indicates though, at times this left the Matildas vulnerable at the back, with a high line exposing key defensive stalwarts for pace.

Milicic is very clear in his philosophy – he wants the Matildas to dominate possession, to play with attacking intent and courage and let the opposition adapt to their game. This is tempered with pragmatism – against the USA the collective system was adapted to best support the attributes of key individuals, surrounding spearhead Sam Kerr with the energetic and almost telepathic Caitlin Foord, with width provided by attacking wingers Lisa de Vanna, Emily Gielnik or Hayley Raso. In midfield, the accomplished ball players Elise Kellond-Knight and Emily van Egmond are tasked with building the play from deep, while rising star Ellie Carpenter is given licence to attack from right full-back.

With 12 players boasting 50+ caps, the squad is an excellent blend of youth and experience. Australians make up the largest foreign cohort of NWSL starters, with the complementary calendars of the domestic W-League and America’s top competition meaning all-year-round football for the nation’s best. Whether the Matildas are the finished article in time for this World Cup remains to be seen, but Milicic is emphatic his side will play “the Australian way” – with energy, with courage and with self-belief.

The coach

Milicic is a highly regarded local coach who served as the men’s national team assistant under Ange Postecoglou, winning international acclaim for its attacking showing at the 2014 men’s World Cup and silverware in the form of Australia’s first men’s Asian Cup trophy in 2015. Famously hard-working, meticulous and forensic in his preparation, Milicic is a taskmaster, but personable enough to extract the very best from this talented playing group.

Star player

What more is there to write about Sam Kerr? One of the undisputed stars of the women’s game, Kerr is the all-time leading goalscorer in both the NWSL and the W-League, and arrives in France coming off four consecutive domestic golden boot awards – and all this at still just 25 years old. Overlooked for Fifa’s major individual honours – due perhaps to previous criticism of the governing body – but a star-turn in France and a move to one of Europe’s top clubs post-World Cup could change that.

Did you know?

The veteran Lisa De Vanna could join an elite club by scoring at a fourth World Cup – something that seemed unlikely when the mercurial but tempestuous star was described by a former coach ahead of her first World Cup as “high maintenance”, “a brat” and possessing mood swings “like the stock market crash of 1987”.

Brief history of women’s football in Australia

Described by historians Roy Hay and Bill Murray as being held back by “antagonistic relations at the institutional level”, women’s football in Australia endured almost a century of chauvinistic dismissal from the 1880s onwards, with a 1921 committee examining outdoor games for girls finding football “unsuitable”, given that “much physical exercise might increase the difficulties of parturition”, aka childbirth. Buoyed by second-wave feminism and championed by pioneering figures such as Elaine Watson and Heather Reid, the women’s game planted its first roots in semi-professionalism in the 1970s. A first national championship took place in 1974, with the foundation of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association – a body that the then governing body refused to ratify – leading to a first national team tour in 1978.

Nevertheless, due to financial limitations, it wasn’t until 1984 that the Matildas first played a game outside Oceania, and 1994 outside Asia, with Australia failing to qualify for the inaugural Women’s World Cup on goal-difference to New Zealand. Since then, the Matildas have been ever-present at World Cups, but didn’t record a win (4-1 v Ghana) until 2007 where they emerged from the group stage for the first time.

Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?

Ellie Carpenter. Already a veteran of six domestic seasons in Australia and the US and with an Olympics campaign under her belt, the still teenage Carpenter has already blossomed into a key component of this Matildas squad. Tenacious, hard-working, with pace and an engine that goes all day, Carpenter will be crucial both in attack and defence, from a position that has been an Achilles heel for Australia in recent campaigns.

What is the realistic aim for France and why?

Final four. The upheaval following the dismissal of Stajcic has cooled fevered dreams of the trophy, as has a mixed year of performances following Australia’s famous home-soil defeat of the USA in 2017. This is unquestionably the Matildas’ strongest ever squad, and if Kerr fires, a fairytale charge to the final could be on the cards. They have fallen at the quarterfinals at the past three World Cups – Australia would desperately love to go at least one better in France.

Annual budget

Believed to be $A2-4m. Football Federation Australia spent $A11.3m on national teams in 2018, but with that being a men’s World Cup year, it’s likely the lion’s share went to the men’s game.

Registered players

FFA reports that 140,000 female players “participating in regular structured football”, but a recent AusPlay survey cites 250,000 female participants in what is - despite the investment from Aussie rules football, netball and cricket - still the nation’s largest grassroots participation sport.

Richard Parkin writes for the Guardian Australia. Follow him here on Twitter.

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