City Edition: Women's World Cup Preview - Australia

City Edition: Women's World Cup Preview - Australia
This article first appeared in Issue 12 of City Edition. Next week, history will be made when the Girls in Green’s play in their first ever World Cup game. Ireland’s opponents in Sydney will be joint hosts Australia in a game that has already exceeded expectation to the point of having to be moved to the country’s second-biggest stadium, the historic Stadium Australia. The enormity of not just qualifying for but playing in Ireland’s first ever game at a major tournament possibly won’t fully sink in, for players and supporters alike, until Vera Pauw’s team line up with the Matildas and step out onto the field. What is sure to be a momentous occasion for Ireland will be equally so for Australia, for slightly different reasons. I spoke with Australian football journalist Samantha Lewis ahead of what is sure to be an unforgettable tournament. “The tournament is finally starting to feel very real,” she says. “Squads are being announced, match tickets are flying out the door, host stadiums and training bases are putting their finishing touches on pitches and facilities, World Cup merchandise and national team jerseys are in the front windows of sports stores, ads for the tournament are increasingly visible on billboards and television and social media, and fans are in their final stages of booking flights and accommodation. “After years of quiet work behind the scenes, the tournament is now starting to break through into the consciousness of the Australian public. “The fact that the opening game between Australia and the Republic of Ireland was moved to the tournament’s biggest stadium due to overwhelming ticket demand is the latest example of just how popular the Matildas have become. The national team has been on a steady rise of popularity since around 2017, but the past four years in particular has seen them reach brand new heights. “The Matildas are now one of the most recognisable and beloved sports teams in the country, with captain Sam Kerr regularly listed as one of the most popular athletes. Moving the game to the tournament’s biggest stadium so late in the piece also reflects the fact that even Fifa perhaps doesn’t really appreciate just how big women’s football is becoming here. If that opening game against Ireland is a sell-out, it’ll be a new attendance record for a Matildas game, and likely one of the biggest sports crowds in our country’s history. History will happen before our very eyes.” The legacy of this World Cup has already started with the demand for tickets and Samantha believes success for Australia can leave a lasting impact for the sport. “There’s no doubt that the Matildas doing well at this home World Cup is important,” she says. “We all saw the impact of England winning their home European Championship last year had on women’s football there and how the success of that team galvanised the community and forced governments and other institutions to sit up and pay attention. Australian sports fans love a winner, so in terms of the momentum of the tournament, the Matildas progressing to at least the quarterfinals is the expectation. “However, if you look across the history of the tournament, only once has the host nation ever gone on to win the entire thing; that was the USA in 1999. And besides, if we look at the bigger picture, the legacy the Matildas have left on Australian football has already been enormous. They’ve already done so much for the sport just by being who they are, it almost doesn’t matter how far they go in the tournament itself. Their impact will far out-live the World Cup.” While Australia have home advantage, Samantha is fully aware of the support and passion the renowned Green Army will add to the game. A large number of Irish people live in Australia; add to that the amount of people planning to travel Down Under and Ireland’s games are sure to have huge support. “There is a huge Irish expat population here in Australia, particularly in Sydney,” says Samantha. “Given this will be the first time the country has appeared at a Women’s World Cup, I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a big green wall of Irish fans that fills up one end of Stadium Australia on July 20th. And even if Aussies outnumber Irish fans, I’m pretty sure you can out-sing and out-chant us as though you had thousands more there in the stands with you! That’ll be your best intimidation tactic, I think, the noise that this small but mighty population can make while supporting their Girls in Green.” The achievements of Vera Pauw’s squad in recent years has not gone unnoticed and Samantha feels the team have a good balance which will help them at the World Cup. One player she singles out for particular praise is former Cork City captain Denise O’Sullivan, who has already experienced playing in Australia and not surprisingly left a big impression. “From an Australian perspective, Ireland are a fierce, disciplined and very physical team with a couple of superstars like Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan who can turn a game on its head,” says Samantha. “Aussie fans are especially familiar with O’Sullivan’s qualities, as we were lucky enough to watch her play in our local W-League for a couple of seasons with Canberra United and Western Sydney Wanderers, where she was outstanding. Ireland have also got some key defensive players such as Louise Quinn, Megan Connolly, Aoife Mannion and Courtney Brosnan in goal, who have all been playing at the highest level in England. “I think one of Ireland’s great strengths is their underdog mentality: They know they’re not the favourites, they know their team isn’t overflowing with household names, but they believe in each other, and they represent their country with such incredible passion and commitment. Sometimes that heart and fight can make all the difference. “Those who play close attention to women’s football are definitely not underestimating the Republic of Ireland. The last time the Matildas played them, in September 2021, we actually lost 3-2, so that’ll give Ireland real confidence coming into this opening match. However, the Matildas likewise have a point to prove, particularly captain Sam Kerr, whose 100th appearance for Australia was ruined by that loss. “Given the Republic of Ireland are in one of the toughest groups in the tournament, where each nation is capable of beating every other nation, it’s tough to predict how far any of them can go. Football is ultimately played on the day, and I can absolutely see Ireland getting out of the group and progressing to the Round of 16 if they’re able to secure at least a win and a draw, so long as they continue finding the back of the net, as they may be up against teams from other groups, with goal difference being the deciding factor. But the jeopardy and drama are what makes this group so exciting.” Samantha also identified three crucial players to the Australian team who could be crucial to their hopes at the tournament and who Ireland will need to watch closely. “Over the past four years, Sam Kerr has undoubtedly become one of the best strikers in the world and comes into the Women’s World Cup riding a wave of individual awards after yet another stand-out season with Chelsea. It’s not just her clinical goal-scoring that is crucial to Australia’s tournament hopes, but also the work Kerr does in other areas of the game: Her speed, her aerial presence, pressing from the front, stretching defences, bringing team-mates into play. The Matildas captain is as close to irreplaceable as a player can get. “Despite an injury-interrupted season with Arsenal, left-back Steph Catley remains a crucial member of any team she’s part of. She epitomises the modern full-back role: Not only is she defensively solid, but she is also regularly involved in build-up and attacking play, overlapping and overloading down the left wing and delivering pin-point crosses into dangerous areas. In addition, Catley is also Australia’s designated set-piece taker, with her corners and free kicks almost always leading to significant chances for her team-mates. “Since returning from giving birth to her daughter Harper in 2021, midfielder Katrina Gorry has hit the form of her career. Her role in the centre of the park is a hybrid of a bulldozing defender combined with the forward-thinking creativity of an attacker. Described by Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson as a ‘quarterback’ midfielder, Gorry is regularly the pivot-point around which the entire team revolves, using her superior ball retention and long-range passing ability to dictate the flow of play.” Chris O’Mahony, @ChrisOMsport

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