Never has there been more pre-tournament excitement surrounding an Australian national football team. A World Cup on home soil, a squad boasting a golden generation of players and an encouraging run of sustained good form have piqued interest and heightened anticipation in a country where football usually struggles for relevance. Led by their talismanic captain, Sam Kerr, the team have sent expectations soaring, but it hasn’t always been so with Tony Gustavsson at the helm. Defensive frailties blighted the coach’s early tenure and, despite a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, a disastrous exit at the quarter-final stage of the 2022 Asian Cup raised questions about the Swede’s ability to mount a credible World Cup challenge.
Gustavsson has sought to move beyond a “just give it to Kerr” mentality and tried to avoid an overreliance on his star striker by giving game time to squad players wherever possible – not always to great success. A 7-0 defeat to Spain in June last year proved something of a nadir after he sent out an inexperienced team to the slaughter in Huelva. But the benefits of that policy may finally be coming to fruition, and the Matildas have since compiled a run of 8 wins out of their last 9 games including victories over top-10 teams Sweden, Spain and England – not always with a full-strength side.
“Sometimes you’re not as bad as people say you are when you lose, but you’re not as good as people say you are when you win, either,” Gustavsson said after fielding a side heavily weakened by injury in the 2-0 win over England in April. “We know on any given day, we might not have the best team, but we can beat the best teams.” And with mixed results giving way to a solid run of form, the suggestion is that Australia may just be timing their run to perfection.
The charismatic Gustavsson arrived in the hot seat in January 2021 with a big grin and goofy nature that belied a reputation for tactical astuteness. His work as Jill Ellis’s assistant was instrumental in the USA’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019 and, since taking over as the Matildas’ head coach, he has not been afraid to experiment tactically. He played three at the back at the Tokyo Olympics, with a degree of success, but has since seemingly settled on a back four in a more conventional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. “There’s a lot of potential here, they have shown their qualities, but I also think that together I can take them to the next level,” he said when he took the job.
There are few, if any, plaudits left to describe the goalscoring phenomenon that is Kerr. The striker is in the form of her life and coming off the back of a goal-laden, double-winning season with Chelsea, during which she also claimed a host of individual accolades. She holds the Australian record for international goals – her 63rd helped down England this year in her 120th international – and, such is her importance to the Matildas, there is a sense that she holds the hopes of a nation on her shoulders heading into this tournament. “One thing is her individual qualities as a footballer but even more valuable to this team is what she gives as a person and how she carries them,” Gustavsson has said of his inspirational captain. “It’s amazing.”
In a squad of big-name players based in the European leagues, Cortnee Vine stands out as one of the few who have won their place by virtue of her performances in the domestic league. The Sydney FC flyer’s rise to prominence has been meteoric and, while she is still short of being named as a starter, she has the potential to make an impact off the bench with her direct running and ability to put opposition defenders on the back foot.
Standing of women’s football in Australia?
Football is hugely popular with women and girls in Australia but high participation levels do not yet translate to similar levels of eyeballs on the domestic league (even though this year’s grand final broke attendance records). The national team is a different beast and interest in the Matildas is at least on a par with their male counterparts, the Socceroos. A World Cup on home soil has further intensified the public gaze and administrators have been keen to talk up the lasting legacy they believe the tournament will leave on the game amid the continued rise of women’s sport.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
“I think there are many teams that could win the World Cup,” England coach Sarina Wiegman said this year. “Australia is one of them.” Gustavsson’s side certainly has the potential to make a deep run on home soil and, in Kerr, they have a player who, if firing on all cylinders, may even take them all the way. Still, there remains a degree of unpredictability about this team, despite improvements, and how well they deal with any opening-night nerves may well set the tone for the rest of their campaign.
Courtesy of The Guardian
Canada plays a style of football that prioritises defending. Bev Priestman’s side knows that they have quality in attack, but with several world-class defenders and goalkeepers in their squad, they believe that they can keep clean sheets against any team in the world. When a team does that, they will always have a chance to win. That was the case at the Olympics and expect it to be the same mindset in Australia and New Zealand. Priestman’s team qualified for the World Cup last summer by winning Group B at the Concacaf W Championship in Mexico, later falling to the United States in the final. They were then drawn into Group B for the World Cup, with the hosts Australia, Republic of Ireland and Nigeria. Some have suggested it is the “group of death”, with each team capable of beating every other.
Canada will take some comfort from the fact that they played Nigeria and Australia twice in friendlies in 2022 and were unbeaten across the four games. They won both games in Australia in September and won one and drew one against Nigeria on Canadian soil last April. Defender Kadeisha Buchanan recently said of Priestman: “I’m not saying that she knew that we’re gonna draw Nigeria and Australia, but it’s great that she planned that out. I think she’s just very detailed in the way she plans.” Just as Argentina did for Lionel Messi at last year’s men’s World Cup, Canada will be putting everything into this tournament to get some long-time Canadian greats – midfielders Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott plus 40-year-old forward Christine Sinclair – the crown jewel in what have been some incredible careers. This tournament and next year’s Paris Olympics could be a changing of the guard for this squad, as young players push the veterans for playing time, at what could be the final major tournaments for several players. In the case of Schmidt, she has already announced that she will retire from international duty following the World Cup.
They’ll worry about the future later, however. The focus in the short term is lifting the World Cup trophy at Stadium Australia on 20 August. As defender Vanessa Gilles said last month: “We definitely have a culture and an environment that’s conducive to team chemistry, to winning, to being honest with each other, which not many national teams can beat.”
Bev Priestman isn’t afraid to make big decisions to help her team win, and has also shown a willingness to plan for the future. Her squad for this tournament is capable of winning it all, just as they did in her first major tournament as a head coach at the Tokyo Olympics, but it also features several young players that will be crucial for the future. Priestman, who was an assistant to Phil Neville with the England team that finished fourth at the 2019 World Cup, said in June that the reserves at her disposal “make for an exciting squad to lead and for any player to be a part of”.
In Canada there is no footballer more recognisable than Christine Sinclair. Arguably the greatest international footballer ever with a record 190 international goals in over 300 international appearances, Sinclair is almost bigger than the sport itself in Canada, not that the usually-reserved captain wants to be. The 14-time Canada Soccer Player of the Year has scored at four Olympics and five World Cups, and finally won her first major international honour with a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. “Her humility has inspired me so much to be a better player, a better leader, and a person,” said teammate Shelina Zadorsky recently. “I appreciate still being able to continue to work with her at this stage in my life and career, and just have a friendship.”
Defender Jade Rose is a star in the making, and already showing flashes of brilliance at the senior international level. Named the 2020 and 2021 female Canadian Young Player of the Year, she made her senior national team debut in 2021, but has really established herself as a regular squad member under Priestman in the past year. Her best moment with the national team so far came in Australia in September, when she put in a brilliant defensive performance against the great Sam Kerr, seemingly unfazed by the occasion.
Did you know?
At the Tokyo Olympics, with the players kept in a bubble to protect they and the public from the effects of the pandemic, the Canadian players and staff held a Mario Kart tournament, playing the video game in the team hotel. Centre-back Vanessa Gilles, who was crucial to Canada’s gold medal win on the pitch, also won that competition, later declaring herself a double Olympic champion on social media.
Standing of women’s football in Canada?
Canada is one of the only top nations in women’s football that doesn’t have its own domestic professional league, although there are groups working toward changing that in the coming years. The appetite for it is there, and the need for a professional pathway instead of going overseas is long overdue. Football is the most popular sport in the country in terms of youth participation, and continuing to rise following Canada’s Olympic gold medal.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
Coming in as the Olympic champions, the expectation for Canada is that they will put up strong performances in the knockout rounds. The squad believe they have the quality needed to lift the trophy. “Our chances are high if we play our game, we focus on ourselves, we have all the details,” Vanessa Gilles said to reporters in Toronto in June. “We’re going in it to win it.”
Courtesy of the Guardian
This tournament finds the Nigeria team in an unusually vulnerable state. Having lost the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, a title they had previously monopolised for decades, the Super Falcons will arrive in Australia without their trademark aura. Of course, 2022 was not the first time Nigeria have failed to win Wafcon. Twice they had been usurped by Equatorial Guinea but on both occasions it felt as if it was partly down to their own complacency. This time there is a real sense that the rest of Africa is catching up. The Super Falcons lost to both South Africa and Morocco, the two teams who went on to contest a final in which the latter triumphed. They then lost to Zambia in the third-place playoff. Considering that backdrop, it seems entirely possible that the nine-time African champions will not be able to equal their achievement from the last World Cup, in 2019, when they reached the last 16. Their best ever performance at the tournament was back in 1999, when they got to the quarter-finals.
In addition, the perennial cloud of owed bonuses and administrative interference hangs over the Super Falcons once again. In a recent interview on the Sounding off on Soccer podcast, Randy Waldrum, the head coach, lifted the lid on the pressure he has faced over his final squad list and criticised the lack of preparation ahead of the World Cup. “They wanted me to pick a goalkeeper from Nigeria for the World Cup that I have never seen, who has never been in one of our camps,” he said. He also revealed that the team shunned training ahead of their Wafcon defeat to Zambia on account of unpaid bonuses. In response, the Nigeria Football Federation described his outburst as an “afterthought” and directly criticised the inclusion of the keeper Yewande Balogun. There is, however, some solace to be found in the fact that Waldrum has a squad brimming with talent, especially in the attacking areas. Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala is at the peak of her powers and has just won the Champions League. She has a great support cast, including Atlético Madrid’s Rasheedat Ajibade and Saint-Étienne’s Esther Okoronkwo. There is also more depth in midfield, an area where Nigeria have struggled for options in the past. “I think the current Super Falcons squad is loaded with many talented players,” Waldrum said. “There are a lot of players who have much to offer in the team and I am reasonably excited and hopeful.”
Waldrum is a coach who splits opinion. Apart from the fact his CV seemed rather weak when he was appointed and he essentially works part-time, he also failed to win Wafcon last year, something that has been taken for granted in the past. To make matters worse, he managed to antagonise the Nigerian media by limiting access to the players during the tournament. In his defence, he is facing unprecedented challenges from the other African teams as women’s football on the continent is growing at a rapid pace and his job has not been made easier by the NFF still owing some salaries. So the jury is out on the former Trinidad and Tobago coach. Performances have slowly begun to improve but a poor showing at the World Cup will leave him with no place to hide.
Asisat Oshoala. Playing for a club of Barcelona’s stature, scoring as many goals as she does, being nominated for the Ballon d’Or and winning the African women’s player of the year award four times is a strong case to be the star player of any team. Oshoala’s speed, agility and eye for the spectacular means the Super Falcons often look to her for inspiration. That is not always a positive for the team as a whole, but it does challenge the other players to raise their level. A role model off the pitch, she has a foundation and academy for girls which aims to provide the sort of opportunities she was denied when growing up.
If there is one thing that Nigeria have lacked in recent times, it is a reliable, mobile link between midfield and attack. Ngozi Okobi has fulfilled the role in previous years but now Deborah Abiodun has the potential to carry the team’s creative burden for many years to come. A part of the squad for the 2022 Under-20 World Cup, Abiodun interprets the role with a unique flair, drifting into pockets of space in the channels to combine with teammates and take the ball into the final third. If trusted, the 19-year-old could prove a real revelation.
Did you know?
If Onome Ebi steps on to the pitch in Australia or New Zealand, she will play at her sixth World Cup, taking her past the Japan legend Homare Sawa and keeping her level with Marta, who is also expected to play at this tournament. That would leave only the Brazilian Formiga ahead of them. Ebi, now 40, already has the African record.
Standing of women’s football in Nigeria?
Despite bringing tremendous success to Nigeria, women’s football gets the short end of the stick from a financial perspective. It is very well followed, especially during major international tournaments, but its growth remains hindered by a number of factors with societal stigma and poor administration and organisation most prominent among them. The domestic league often fails to kick off on schedule, clubs are inadequately funded and there is a lack of infrastructure and general expertise.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
Four matches is the most Nigeria have played at a World Cup and they are faced with a difficult group featuring the co-hosts, Australia, and the reigning Olympic champions, Canada. If they are to progress, they will need to go into their final group match against Ireland with something already on the board. Prediction: group-stage exit.