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Tony Gustavsson talks underdogs, mind games and the 'single moments' the Matildas need against the English

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15th August, 2023

The biggest turnout for a ‘MD-1’ (match day minus one) press conference of this tournament descended on the media centre at Stadium Australia on Tuesday afternoon, as Australia coach Tony Gustavsson and player of the moment Mackenzie Arnold faced questions from a mixture of Australian, English and international journalists.

Now in uncharted waters, the Matildas were heading into the semi-final showdown as underdogs against England, as far as the bookmakers were concerned. But for the English press, this was part of a rivalry that transcended world rankings, form and past meetings.

The Australian coach, so well practiced and faultless in his delivery, was understandably coy with what he would give to the media, forever the experts at prising a story from the crumbs offered pre-match.

Asked whether his past experiences of managing in a crisis would help, and with the suggestion that this would be quite straightforward compared to scenarios he had faced in previous roles, he was quick to point out that this was more than just about the 90 minutes of the game.

This game meant so much more to his players than the football on the field, and that team spirit was a great advantage. His starting eleven, he admitted, would be focused on starting strong and finishing stronger. Instead of feeling pressure, he said that managing in such a high profile encounter was a privilege.

His clever use of humour came to the fore when asked what he would have thought six months ago if someone had said Australia was in the semi-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 12: Players of Australia celebrate their side's victory in the penalty shoot out after Cortnee Vine of Australia scores her team's tenth penalty in the penalty shoot out during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Quarter Final match between Australia and France at Brisbane Stadium on August 12, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Hyde – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)


“I’d be concentrating on the first group game versus Ireland,” he quipped. And when asked what his experience in big tournament games would bring to the Matildas, he underlined that these tight games are usually settled by a single moment, a tackle, a 1-on-1, and that this was about small margins. They were prepared for whatever England would throw at them.

The rivalry between England and Australia came up more than once from the English media, as if they were fishing for a headline. Both Gustavsson and Arnold weren’t interested.

Just another game, they said.

The fact that a lot of the players were playing their club football in the same league meant there was a familiarity, but the sense this was a rivalry like the ashes was simply brushed aside.

The tag of underdog is something teams will often attempt to claim in the lead-up to important games, and the Australian coach was asked if he thought Australia was favourite or underdog.

Claiming that he didn’t want to go into it and that the media in the room would decide anyway who was the favourite, it wasn’t long before he suggested that England had the bigger players playing in the bigger clubs, and that the resources poured into English football were on a different scale.

Australia, on the other hand, had players sitting on the bench for those same clubs and relied on personnel from mid-table Swedish teams to make up the squad. Having then, unwittingly perhaps, confirmed Australia’s underdog status, he said the crowd and the support would be massive and would only work in their favour.


(Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Arnold responded to the same questions regarding the coveted underdog status and the traditional rivalry with England. She didn’t entertain the notion they were rivals, citing other countries as the main rivals including Brazil and the USA, both of who were now out of the tournament.

She did admit to a new level of attention after the quarter-final win against France, and that if she “played like shit” on Wednesday the level of attention would be the same for different reasons.

Arnold spoke well, responding to queries about her penalty taking ability. Gustavsson had decided she was number five on the list on Saturday night and she was more than happy to step up and take the pressure penalty.

Australia’s number one shot stopper had taken spot kicks before at club level, but she had never taken one on the international stage. She’d be ready to take another if required, although she hoped that it wouldn’t come to that on Wednesday night.

The role of Australian goalkeeping coach Tony Franken was underlined as vital in Arnold’s emergence as the first choice keeper for the Matildas, and his off-the-field influence was just as important as his knowledge of the game itself.

We had established that England were favourites, but that the crowd and the atmosphere on the night from the expected 75,000 crowd would be vital to getting Australia across the line.


The English press had their narrative to take into their morning headlines, Gustavsson had refrained from making this about a historical sporting rivalry, and Arnold had dismissed it as “just another game”.

The pair had stopped just short of saying that they didn’t fear anyone, but it came across loud and clear to everyone in that room.