It is obvious to everyone invested in the Matildas that the team has regressed since the controversial departure of Alen Stajcic in 2019.
Citing toxicity of culture and other reasons that now appear vacuous, Football Australia decided to part ways with a coach that, at the time, had Australia sitting as high as seventh in the world rankings and had obviously narrowed the gap between them and the powerful United States women’s national team.
Stajcic compiled a 55.56 winning percentage whilst at the helm, developed a respected playing style based on his proven and tactically informed knowledge of the game and positioned the team well for the four-year cycle that would proceed the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
History tells us that Stajcic was replaced shortly before the 2019 event, Ante Milicic led the team to France and the solid foundations brought knockout-stage qualification before the Matildas fell to Norway on penalties in the Round of 16.
The looks on the players’ faces in the immediate moments following that loss said everything about the opportunity lost and the belief in the squad that their World Cup path was to have a further step or two in it before finally coming to an end.
Contrastingly, the expressions on the faces of the players who trudged off the pitch in embarrassment at the Nuevo Colombino Stadium on Sunday morning held no conviction, belief or fortitude.
Spain cut the Matildas to shreds in a second-half onslaught that perhaps even they could not have predicted; thinking that their class would eventually tell but also that the fight in the Australian challenge would last a little longer than it did.
Australian manager Tony Gustavsson was on the sideline, enthusiastically waving and shouting as he is wont to do, yet the Swede must be held accountable for sending a makeshift and unprepared group of women into battle.
The opportunities to represent in national colours are few and far between, and with the choices Gustavsson made, he in fact cheapened the wearing of them by selecting numerous players who are in no way, shape or form deserving of Matildas play at this stage.
Worse still, the nonsense he sprouted in the post-game analysis and reflection in regards to “long-term” plans and having a “player-centric approach” rather than playing the best group of Matildas he could muster was laughable.
Without Sam Kerr, Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Hayley Raso, Caitlin Foord, Kyah Simon, Mary Fowler or the injured Ellie Carpenter, the Aussies were trounced, and the more second-half substitutions that were made, the more the sheer inability of many players to compete at Spain’s level was exposed.
Essentially there were four regular Matildas who started the match, with Emily van Egmond, Katrina Gorry, Tameka Yallop and Clare Polkinghorne somewhat thrown to the wolves by Gustavsson by being surrounded by mostly inexperienced and unproven players at international level.
With an increasingly concerning record with the national team that now stands at eight wins and four draws across 23 matches and consistently bad losses against top-class European opposition, the coach did all he could to spin the result.
He cited the experimental approach taken in the second half and spoke of the need to invest further in the women’s game in order to achieve sustained success after the World Cup, and he sidestepped personal responsibility by stating categorically that it is “not about me”.
I am sorry, Tony, but it is about you, and had a Socceroos manager compiled a similar 23-game record with a few embarrassing drubbings along the way, I’d guess that the FA door may well be hitting him in the backside right now, particularly if his squad was supposedly 12th in the world rankings.
In their current state the Matildas are not the 12th best women’s football team in the world. Their manager has potentially damaged psyches and confidence with his bizarre approach to the clash with Spain, and FA’s appointment of him now seems a very poor one.
Fans have become tired of the talk, sideline gesticulations and empty rhetoric that presents a picture we can all see is far from accurate. Wednesday morning’s match-up with Portugal could be his final game in charge of the Matildas should something similar occur despite the fact that Portugal are not near the class of the Spanish.
Now is not the time for experimentation.
As I have written extensively throughout Gustavsson’s reign, identifying the next wave of Matildas was one of his most crucial tasks, and in that, as we literally count down the days to a World Cup on home soil, he has failed.
Spinning it any other way disrespects the players, Football Australia and the fans.