Never before has there been more pre-tournament excitement surrounding the Australian national football team.
A World Cup on home soil, a team that boasts a golden generation of players, as well as an encouraging streak of continued good form, has stoked interest and heightened anticipation in a country where football has traditionally struggled for relevance.
Led by captain Sam Kerr, the team sent out high expectations. But it wasn’t always like that with Toni Gustafsson at the helm.
Defensive weaknesses bedeviled the coach’s early tenure, and despite a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, the disastrous quarter-final exit from the 2022 AFC Asian Cup raised questions about the Swede’s ability to mount a credible World Cup challenge.
“Sometimes you are not as bad as people say when you lose and you are not as good as people say when you win,” Gustafsson said.
The charismatic Gustafsson stepped into the hot seat in January 2021, with a big grin and goofy nature that belied a reputation for tactical intelligence.
His work as an assistant to Gil Ellis was instrumental in USA’s back-to-back World Cup victories in 2015 and 2019. Since taking over as head coach of the Matildas, he hasn’t been afraid of tactical experimentation, as his team is highly respected at the tournament.
“I think there are many teams that can win the World Cup,” England coach Sarina Wegman said in the run-up to the tournament. “Australia is one of them.”
Gustafsson’s side certainly has the potential to run deep on home turf. Plus, in Chelsea striker Kerr, they have a player who – if he’s firing on all cylinders – might take them all the way. with one foot.
However, there is still a degree of unpredictability about this team, despite the improvements. How well they handle any nerves on opening day may set the tone for the rest of their campaign.
Until last year, the closest the Republic of Ireland had come to qualifying for a major tournament was to qualify for a play-off at Euro 2009.
But after finishing second in their World Cup qualifying group behind Sweden, thanks in large part to wins over Finland both home and away, they finally did so with a 1-0 win over Scotland last October.
“Any champions, any fighters, any tigers,” said head coach Vera Pao that night. After 25 years of training, the Dutch woman managed to reach the World Cup for the first time, too.
The former Netherlands international, who has been a teammate of Wiegman’s for a decade, is a very experienced coach who had managed Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa before being appointed to the Irish job in 2019.
Seven straight defeats in the early part of her reign hardly bode well. However, the team turned it around. Captain, Katie McCabe and midfielder Dennis O’Sullivan scored 13 goals and 11 assists between them in the playoffs, making them standout players.
McCabe, in particular, will be key for the Irish. The Dublin player, who was named Arsenal’s Player of the Year for the 2022/2023 season, is the face of the team. She was appointed as the youngest captain of her country at the age of 21, six years ago. Goals, assists, maneuvers, arguments with the referee … bring a lot.
However, the team’s overall success has been primarily built on a solid defense. With Louise Quinn and Niamh Fahey at its heart. Goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan shone. After difficult moments earlier in her career, she had seven consecutive clean sheets until last April earned her the Ireland Women’s Player of the Year award.
The two countries engage each other on Thursday, 12 noon South African time. DM