Joy and heartbreak: For 23 Matildas, the journey has only just begun

In the history of the Women’s World Cup, only eight teams have experienced the pressure and privilege of representing their nation at home in the greatest tournament in women’s football.

Australia and New Zealand, co-hosts of the tournament, joined the list this week with the confirmation of their squads for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Headlined by captain Sam Kerr and the surprise inclusion of veteran forward Kyah Simon, this Matildas squad sees experience and youth in equal measures – from veteran Clare Polkinghorne to 156 caps at the bolt of blue Clare Hunt who only made her debut in February this year. .

The biggest question mark leading to the Australian squad announcement was the fitness of Simon, whose inclusion in the 29-man preliminary squad raised eyebrows.

Simon tore his ACL while playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Women’s Super League in October 2022 and many fans assumed the July 2023 World Cup deadline would be too soon for her to return in the national team.

With no opportunity to gauge her readiness and fitness after missing the rest of the WSL season, fans were essentially in the dark about what she could do on the park, relying on the knowledge of his great tournament credentials from years past.

For Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson, the possibility of knowing where Simon might be in just a few weeks, thanks to the work provided by herself and the Australian medical team, was reason enough to justify the selection.

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“She’s not selected based on where she is now, she’s selected based on where we think she’ll come to in a month,” he said. “She has a phenomenal connection not only with Sam [Kerr], but all players. There’s an understanding and a story there on the ground that we’ve seen many times.

“The last time I saw her was at the Olympics when she was behind a lot of our goals.

“I was very clear with Kyah, I don’t expect her to start the game, I don’t think she will be ready for this, but the game changer on the bench.”

For Simon herself, the selection was a relief and a validation of the hard work that had gone into her rehab after eight “difficult” months.

“I had doubts in my mind throughout this period: ‘Why do I really want to play football? Why do I want to impose myself emotionally?'” she said . “I was a moody wreck some days, then other days I’d be on top of the world because I had small wins in my rehab.”

Simon has the complete confidence of his teammates to also play the role of clutch.

“I think the only thing to do is get in shape and that’s the easiest part of the game,” Kerr said of Simon. “She’s got this talent for the goal, the talent for doing something special, and she’s kind of an X-factor. She’s always been her entire career, so to have someone in the team like that It’s incredible.

“It gives us all confidence and there are 23 players who can come off the bench and do something special. But I think Kyah is right to have a bag of tricks in her back pocket.”

Simon as a game-changer makes sense with Australia likely to continue with the roster which sees its attacking weapons leading from the front from the start with Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and World Cup debutant Cortnee Vine.

Vine is one of seven Matildas heading to their first World Cup along with Hunt, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Alex Chidiac, Charlotte Grant, Courtney Nevin and Clare Wheeler.

Within this list of names is the profound creation story of the Matildas which was one of the dominant storylines of the Gustavsson era. Gustavsson himself said that “it hasn’t been pleasant throughout this journey”, pointing to the criticism he received early in his tenure as he navigated bloody new players with the schedule on toughest the national team has ever faced in terms of consistently high. – opposition to classification.



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But he and the national team are now ready to reap the rewards of this bad patch, as evidenced by the depth of the team.

“If you look at the list, we now have eight full-backs. That means we have two full-backs in each position: left-back, right-back and four centre-backs, natural backs, so we have better depth there,” he said. explained Gustavsson.

“We have eight midfielders, two in each box, whether wide left, wide right or central, and we have four forwards.”

It’s a far cry from the last World Cup where a pre-tournament injury to Laura Brock and a mid-tournament injury to Polkinghorne created a domino effect of movement on the pitch that helped the Matildas exit in the Round of 16 .

It was feared injury could wreck this side’s chances at the World Cup with a seemingly endless parade of blows in recent months.

Alanna Kennedy hasn’t played for the national team since last year and has struggled to be fit for her club due to a series of injuries. Mary Fowler missed the final piece of the WSL season thanks to a broken back. Tameka Yallop came back from an ankle injury to injure the other in his comeback against England in April. Polkinghorne was pictured in a teammate’s Instagram story in Sweden on crutches just a few months ago.

Asked about his team’s health, Gustavsson explained how stressful the last few months had been and how “busy” the medical team had been.

“If you had asked me that question a month ago I would be sitting here and I would be really worried to be honest because we’ve had several players with injury issues over the last six months,” he said. -he declares.

“When you ask me now after being able to train with them for two to three weeks, and the [medical team] have done a phenomenal job with the players to get them where they are.”

With injuries no longer the dominant issue for this Matildas team, attention can turn to the incredible stories behind each of these 23 players.

To Polkinghorne and Lydia Williams who became the first Australians, male or female, to qualify for five World Cups. At the phenomenon Fowler, 20, the youngest member of the Matildas team, and Aivi Luik, at 38, the oldest. To Western Sydney Wanderers captain Hunt, who endured five years of injury setbacks until he finally got a break and had one of the most eye-catching Matildas debuts in years. To Chidiac who made their first World Cup squad after bitterly missing out in 2019. To Katrina Gorry and Yallop who will play in front of nearly 85,000 fans in the Matildas’ opener as their daughters watch in the stands.

It was a whirlwind. It was exhausting. There were tears, both of joy and dismay. But, after three years of waiting for that moment, the Women’s World Cup is almost finally here.

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