They were physically kicked, provoked and mentally tested by North Korea on Sunday night, but the Matildas pushed through exhaustion once again to stake a claim as Australia’s most beloved national sporting team.
The Wallabies, Baggy Greens and Socceroos may hold that title among many Australians, the Diamonds too, but it is hard to deny that the Matildas possess everything a team should strive to obtain.
Team spirit, doggedness, guts, skill, flair, determination… hyperbole truly does not do this group of women justice.
The lack of ego among the Matildas is probably the most endearing quality that can not be found in most other Australian sporting sides. Their presence on the Olympic stage come August will make their country proud.
For that is where the Matildas are headed after a hard-fought 2-1 victory over North Korea – Rio, Brazil.
It is more than deserved for a group that in the past year or so have reached new levels of commitment and performances against the odds. First they left jobs, studies, friends and family behind to train full-time in preparation for the World Cup, and their hard work was rewarded by escaping the Group of Death and making the quarter-finals.
Then there was the tough and brave decision to boycott two games against world champions the USA – the ultimate test for any professional – to stand up for their rights and women’s rights around the world.
The Matildas were rewarded with deserved pay rises and now they have shown what they can achieve when treated as full-time professionals.
The qualifying campaign for Rio started with a shock 3-1 victory against World Cup finalists Japan, who subsequently failed to bounce back from the early loss and will not be booking flights to Rio.
Two relatively smoother games against Vietnam (9-0) and South Korea (2-0) followed before the defining moment against North Korea. While they only required a draw to progress to Rio, it was their fourth game in eight days. Four games in eight days, it is worth repeating.
Once again, Elise Kellond-Knight, Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond and Steph Catley started the match – the first two have played every second of the 360 minutes, while the latter two have been subbed off just once each. An astonishing effort.
The North Koreans’ gameplan was to frustrate their opponents, and their antics in the first half especially were overzealous to say the least. But amid the physical assaults the Matildas did well to (largely) keep their cool, and were rewarded on 18 minutes when Michelle Heyman put Australia in front.
Caitlin Foord, contender among many for woman of the match, cut the ball back into the North Korean box, and Heyman coolly converted the chance, notching up her third goal of qualifying.
Yet North Korea were pre-tournament favourites for a reason, and they fought back tenaciously for the remainder of the half. The only reason they did not level the scores was due to goalkeeper Lydia Williams, whose positioning and awareness was quality to foil three dangerous assaults.
After the break the Matildas began to show signs of losing focus amid their opponent’s heavy-handed tactics, and there were shaky periods for fans watching back home.
Williams was again forced to make a clutch save in the 55th minute.
Yet coach Alen Stajcic, just like his players, stepped up again too, making vital substitutions – Lisa De Vanna in the 57th and Kyah Simon in the 71st – to give his side an extra boost.
The Matildas got back on top though could not find a killer second, Katrina Gorry forcing two top saves from Hong Myong-Hui.
And it was North Korea who hit back against the run of play. Clare Polkinghorne, a colossus all qualifying, was pulled out of position, allowing Kim Su-Gyong to hit an unstoppable equaliser past Williams.
It was a harsh blow, and one that may have forced a lesser team to crumple in a heap. Indeed, the Matildas were struggling to keep their shape and looked vulnerable at times. But despite fatigue inevitably sinking in they found a new level.
On 83 minutes, De Vanna showed her experience drawing four defenders and somehow threading a pass to fellow substitute Simon. The 5″5′ forward sent a low cross into the box, finding Foord, who laid off an intelligent ball for Gorry to smash into the net.
The final minutes passed slowly, with almost every Matilda playing out of position at some point in order to cover for their teammates. When the final whistle blew… it was pandemonium.
The Matildas’ celebration was heartwarming, the genuine delight and passion on their faces a sight that brought many – including Channel Seven commentator and former footballer Melissa ‘Bubs’ Barbieri – to tears.
De Vanna’s exuberant celebrations had already been impressive, yet she topped it off with a trademark Australian victory cry directed at the television cameras.
— Cristian Filippo (@C_Filippo23) March 7, 2016
And that is the colour these Matildas could be wearing around their necks come August. It is no longer a dream but a possibility to win the tournament in Rio.
These women, backed by a committed FFA quickly catching up and realising their potential, are more than capable of causing major problems for the world’s best at the Olympics.
Whether they manage to win a medal or not, the same commitment, the same attractive playing style and the same endearing team spirit will be on show. There is little doubt – the Matildas are fast becoming Australia’s favourite sporting side.