'Benzema is as surprised as anybody!'
Young Matildas coach Leah Blayney will enter rarified air in Australian football when she takes her team to the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica in August, becoming only the fifth person and first woman to play for and coach Australia at a World Cup.
Blayney, who played in the 2004 U-19 Women’s World Cup and the 2006 U-20 Women’s World Cup, joins her former coach Alistair Edwards, Ante Milicic, Paul Okon and Ang Postecoglou in this rather exclusive club.
The 35-year-old, who grew up in Katoomba and started her footballing journey as a junior player at Wentworth Falls United, played in all four of Australia’s games in Thailand in 2004 and featured in two games in Russia in 2006.
She went on to be capped 16 times by the Matildas, narrowly missing out on selection for the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China.
Blayney’s mentor Edwards, who coached her in Russia in 2006, played for the Young Socceroos himself and featured at the 1987 World Youth Cup, which took place in Chile.
Milicic played in the 1993 Youth World Cup in Australia and coached the Matildas at the 2019 World Cup in France.
Okon featured at the 1991 Youth World Cup in Portugal as a player and coached the Young Socceroos in Turkey in 2013.
Postecoglou played in a Youth World Cup in the Soviet Union in 1985 before coaching the Joeys (2001 in Trinidad and Tobago, 2003 in Finland and 2005 in Peru), the Young Socceroos (2001 in Argentina, 2003 in the UAE and 2005 in Holland) and the Socceroos (2014 in Brazil) at several World Cups.
Blayney has a tough task ahead of her in Costa Rica, as her team take on favourites Spain, old foes Brazil and the hosts during the group stage.
Blayney’s dedication to the future of Australian football is underlined by the fact she has declined several opportunities to coach in the A-League Women. A number of clubs made a major play for her services for the upcoming 2022-23 season, but her main focus for now is preparing her team for Costa Rica.
A number of her protégés will also likely feature at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The likes of Courtney Nevin, Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Remy Siemsen and Cortnee Vine are likely to be there while Charlotte Grant, Jess Nash, Jamilla Rankin, Karly Roestbakken, Bryleeh Henry, Wini Heatley and Charli Rule will be pushing for selection.
Blayney is also head coach of the highly-regarded Future Matildas program, which continues to go from strength to strength. The 30 players who hold scholarships for 2022 benefit from elite coaching and even better facilities, as they prepare for a future in professional football.
The U-20 Women’s World Cup goes from 10-28 August, with Australia playing their first game on Thursday 11 August at 12pm AEST against the hosts.
Blayney has remained coy about her plans post-Costa Rica, but a number of clubs in Australia and overseas will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on her movements. For now, though, she will focus on making history.