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Opinion

'Can’t lose sight of the long game': Conflicting emotions as Matildas aim for bronze

Team Australia look on during the women's semi-final match between Australia and Sweden (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Expert
3rd August, 2021
25

You might be feeling conflicted after the Matildas’ 1-0 loss to Sweden in the semi-finals of Tokyo 2020.

For all our talk of exceeding expectations and overachieving, there’s still a part of you in the thick of the action that thinks, maybe, even for a second, we’ve got this.

Fans who say that this tournament has already been a wild success for Australia are correct.

The Matildas will record their best ever result at an Olympics, finishing third or fourth. But beyond the final standings, the Olympics presented an opportunity for growth; a chance, as Tony Gustavsson would say, “to get one day better”.

With the ultimate goal of the Women’s World Cup on home soil in 2023, the Olympics acted almost as a dress rehearsal for a major tournament.

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And when you look at where this team has come from, a top-four finish looks even more incredible.

Four months ago, the Matildas emerged from their COVID-enforced hibernation. Almost 400 days passed. No games. No camps. Nothing.

Australia had a new coach and barely any time together against teams that had not only been playing Euro qualifiers in the back half of 2020 but had always been tough opponents.

The lead-in to Tokyo was brutal. There was the 5-2 defeat against Germany and 5-0 loss against the Netherlands.

Sam Kerr of Australia Matildas

Sam Kerr of Australia (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

The defeat at the hands of Denmark, scoreless draw with Sweden, and loss to Japan in the final warm-up game meant that only the most optimistic among us expected anything.

A semi-finals berth was in few people’s predictions for this tournament. Many were happy to just get out of the group.

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After all, on paper, what right did the Australians have to emerge from the group of death after the last 18 months?

Instead, we all focused on what we could take from this tournament with greater certainty. There’d be at least another three games together in a major tournament setting. There’d be more time to learn formations and put them into practice. There’d be game time for 18-year-old Mary Fowler, 19-year-old Kyra Cooney-Cross, and 23-year-old Teagan Micah.

But we got results. And we got out of the group. And we won a quarter-final which no one expected us to. So we continued to temper our expectations.

Micah and Fowler weren’t just getting minutes, they were stepping up and putting in performances that belied their ages and experience levels. And wouldn’t they be better for it come 2023.

Ellie Carpenter, barring a moment of frustrated silliness, has turned into a more assured right-sided defender, not just a young player with an engine. Steph Catley has been fit and firing; she’s played more minutes in Tokyo than she did her entire FA Women’s Super League season with Arsenal.

Tameka Yallop’s work rate in the centre of the park and down the wings when asked has been terrific. Kyah Simon, another player cruelled by injuries in the lead up, has been a creative force.

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If fans saw glimpses in the friendlies before Tokyo of what this Australian side could be, then the Olympics have been crystal-clear pictures.

And that’s part of the frustration. Anyone coming away from that result a bit sad or disappointed is also right.

Despite knowing that the Matildas have been playing with house money for all intents in purposes, when you see the team on top of their opponents, victory doesn’t look so improbable.

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So we briefly indulge in the sadness of defeat. But we can’t lose sight of the long game. We’ve still achieved so much more than many of us could have imagined. And we still have a medal within our grasps.

Yes, it will take something big. Fatigued players, no Ellie Carpenter, and a USA side that look off but that we’ve only beaten once in 29 attempts aren’t small obstacles.

But knockout football is funny. Anything we get from Thursday evening’s clash is a bonus from what has already been an unbelievable tournament.

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