How an ex-USWNT coach and world-class Kerr combined to lead unfancied Australia into Olympics semi-finals
Five games – that’s all the preparation Australia’s women’s football team had for this summer’s Olympic Games. Five winless games, too.
And yet, on Friday, the Matildas reached their first ever major tournament semi-final.
“I haven’t seen some of these girls for two years,” Chelsea forward and Australia captain Sam Kerr said after scoring twice in Friday's 4-3 extra-time win over Great Britain.
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"I can't explain how proud I am to be a part of this team and to lead this team out. They surprise me every day.”
With names like Kerr, Arsenal's Caitlin Foord, Lyon full-back Ellie Carpenter and more, there has never been any doubt about the talent within Australia’s ranks. But after a crazy few months, they came into this tournament with few expecting much from them.
Tony Gustavsson, former assistant coach with the U.S. women’s national team, was appointed as their new head coach in September. Adding his expertise and experience – he won two World Cup titles with the USWNT – was an exciting prospect.
But there would be no indication of how they would work together for seven months, such was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulty that Australia, like New Zealand, had in organising friendlies, due to tight restrictions at home.
Even then, only so much could be read into those first games, in April, given several players were unavailable because of coronavirus restrictions. It showed in the scorelines too, with the Aussies losing 5-2 to Germany and 5-0 to the Netherlands.
In three further friendlies before the Olympics, they were beaten by Denmark and Japan, and drew with Sweden. Questions were being asked, but the improvements were clear in the performances. The defence had shored up incredibly well – and incredibly quickly, given how little time Gustavsson had had to work with them.
"Very detail-orientated," former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said of Gustavsson on Goal's 'All of US: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Show'. “He’s a fantastic defensive coach and fantastic when it comes to set-pieces.”
A clean sheet against the USWNT last week was further evidence of that, while his impact on dead-ball situations was perfectly illustrated by Alanna Kennedy opening the scoring in the quarter-final win over Team GB with a header from a corner.
From there, it was just about building a potent attack. That was never really a concern when they can boast a player like Kerr, who is complemented by players such as Foord.
Those two are part of an experienced cast which has had a whole injection of youth too, creating a wonderful blend within the squad.
"What I love here is the players encourage each other as well,” Gustavsson said after the game. “The experienced players will say, ‘Take the shot, Mary, because you're going to score!’ – and obviously she got a well-deserved goal.
"I said that in the circle tonight, as well as how proud and happy I am to be a part of this team and to see the ‘never say die’ attitude on show tonight and it's not thanks to me, it's something that they've done for decades before I arrived and me being part of that, I'm very thankful and proud of that."
That’s not to say Gustavsson hasn’t help bring more of that attitude out, though. When Kerr was asked what the new coach has brought to the team, she simply said: “Belief."
"We've always got to this point and fallen at the last hurdle," she added. "When he first joined, that's what a lot of us said, that we just want to get there, get through and give ourselves an opportunity to win a medal because we really believe that we can, but we've just not been able to get over that hurdle.
"He's really instilled that belief that we can do it, we can beat any team and play the way we want to play. We've played every game how we play. We haven't changed for anyone and that gives us massive belief when we beat teams like GB.”
Going into the Games, Football Australia always had on eye on the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which they will host with New Zealand. Progression from the group would have been considered a success, and anything more a bonus, particularly given their problematic preparations.
But what the Matildas have achieved has surpassed all expectations and reaching these latter rounds will stand them in good stead going forward. Indeed, if they can take the Olympics by storm with just five games of preparation, what could they do with two years to get ready for a World Cup on home soil?
They will, of course, be underdogs in their semi-final clash with Sweden – a team who has won every game so far in 90 minutes and carved the U.S. open in the group stages, winning 3-0.
But Australia have been underdogs throughout the entire Games so far – and look how well that has worked out.