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heroes of another kind: the Matildas

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It might surprise some people to learn that I’m a bit of a sports tragic, though I follow sport in general a lot less than I did as a kid. Nowadays it’s a more or less guilty pleasure as I always feel, when watching a soccer game, that I should be ┬áspending my time getting my head around cosmology, electronics, molecular biology or anything else that doesn’t come easily to me.

I say soccer – and that’s what I’ve always called it – because that’s almost all that I follow nowadays, though cricket, tennis, Aussie rules (not to be called AFL), golf, hockey, table tennis and even basketball, were all sports that I played, with extremely varied proficiency, as a youngster. And as a female supremacist, I’ve gone over to the bright side in recent years, and if I were to choose a sporting team to follow out of the many and varied, it would be the Matildas, our national women’s soccer team. And I’m only one of many jumping on the Matildas bandwagon at present. Their most recent home match, against Brazil in Newcastle, drew a record home crowd of nearly 17,000, remarkable for a Tuesday. Their previous record was set only a few days before, against Brazil again in Sydney, when 15,000 attended, just pipping the crowd for the GWS v West Coast Eagles AFL semi-final, a real indication of the rise of women’s soccer here, and it may it go on rising.

So, a little history. The first national women’s team competed in the Asian Women’s Championship in 1975 (the first ever held). Of course it was all pretty amateur in those early days and playing opportunities were sporadic for all women’s soccer teams. It’s fascinating that there was an FA ban on women’s football in place until 1971, according to Wikipedia (I think they’re talking about Britain, but in most places there wouldn’t have been any need for a ban, it just weren’t ladylike en it?). The first women’s world cup was held in 1991, and Australia made its first appearance in 1995, but lost all three of their group games, including a 5-0 loss to Denmark. Throughout the nineties, the Matildas (the name was adopted in’95) were unheralded and unpaid, and even resorted to posing for a nude calendar in 1999 to raise funds. The 2000 Sydney Olympics raised their profile, with large crowds attending their games for the first time, though their results were disappointing. A bit of a lull followed, though they managed to qualify for the 2003 world cup, and reached the quarter-finals in the 2004 Olympics. Gradually they were becoming recognised internationally. In 2007 they reached the quarter-finals of the world cup for the first time, and in 2010 they won their first international championship, the Asian Women’s Championship, now called the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. At the 2011 world cup they again reached the quarter-finals – and again in 2015. Earlier this year they defeated the USA for the first time in their history (after 27 attempts!). This has been their most striking year, with their victory in the inaugural tournament of nations, including a dominant 6-1 defeat of Brazil. As of September 1, the Matildas are ranked 6th in the world, though recent victories may have promoted them further. In any case it’s a ranking the men’s team could only dream of.

Australia has a national women’s soccer league, the W-league, which comprises nine teams, but many of our top players also play overseas – in Japan and the US in particular. Current players Lisa de Vanna and Clare Polkinghorne have been capped over 100 times for Australia, but the national side has generally managed to combine youthfulness with experience – for example defender Steph Catley already has 62 caps at age 23, Alanna Kennedy (defender) has 57 caps at age 22, Caitlin Foord (midfielder) has 58 caps at age 22, Emily van Egmond (midfielder) has 66 caps at age 24, and Katrina Gorry (midfielder) has 58 caps at age 25 (and those figures are already out of date). This extraordinary combo augurs well for the team’s future.

It’s probably fair to say, though, that Australia’s young star striker, Samantha Kerr, is garnering most of the plaudits at the moment. First capped for Australia at the age of fifteen, she became the all-time leading goalscorer in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) of the United States earlier this year, though she’s only just turned 24. Many of her goals have been spectacular – she’s a great header of the ball, and she certainly has the striker’s killer instinct. She also has great positional skills and her reading of the game and her assists are a joy to watch.

So it’s likely that the Matildas’ phenomenal recent success will continue for a while yet, and it’s quite plausible to see their ranking rise to the very top. The next world cup is in France in less than two years. Unless something disastrous happens in the intervening period, which is highly unlikely, Australia will start as one of the favourites, for the first time. Can’t wait!

super-striker Sam Kerr

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Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2017 at 7:31 am