Jul 31, 2023, 10:06 PM ET
MELBOURNE — Steph Catley stood and stared at the ball she had just placed on the penalty spot. Her face was a picture of concentration. She didn’t look nervous. She didn’t even look like she took a deep breath.
After she converted a penalty in Australia’s opening Women’s World Cup match against the Republic of Ireland — the winning goal in what was a cagey 1-0 victory — the stand-in skipper explained that penalties are just set pieces to her. And she knows how to take a set piece and that there’s adrenaline, but not necessarily nerves.
So when the referee blew her whistle at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Monday night and Catley took her small run up, adrenaline no doubt coursing through her veins, she struck the ball with her left foot and placed it perfectly beyond an outstretched Kailen Sheridan. The goal made it Australia four, Canada nil. Catley’s calmness and composure were mirrored through the entire Matildas squad in one of the most extraordinary performances in national team history.
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In the afterglow of the victory, as 27,000 fans flooded out of the stadium, positively buoyed by the spectacle that had unfolded before them, thousands of questions filled the air: How did they do it? How did the Matildas go from the brink of an unmitigated disaster to, arguably, the greatest victory in the team’s recent history?
How did Australia start the day ranked third in Group B, staring down a potential group-stage exit, only to finish it top of the group and into the round of 16? How did they beat Canada, the reigning Olympic champions, who were in the box seat to progress?
How did they do it so clinically and calmly and completely? And how did they do it all without Sam Kerr?
The answers were on the pitch, of course.
Caitlin Foord didn’t get on the scoresheet but, after two games of being the sacrificial lamb up top in Kerr’s absence, she was finally allowed to play the kind of game many had predicted she would pre-tournament. Her combination with Arsenal teammate Catley down the left flank became the focal point for a Matildas attack which needed speed, class, smarts, and fluidity. The duo delivered in spades.
In fact, 99 of the Matildas’ attacks against Canada were down the left-hand side of the pitch, compared with 15 on the right. The Catley-Foord left wing combo set up Hayley Raso’s opener and Mary Fowler’s goal, before Catley completed the job with her penalty.
Ellie Carpenter had her best game of the World Cup so far, while Katrina Gorry continued to pull the strings in midfield. And the often-maligned Emily van Egmond played a crucial role floating between the forward line and the midfield.
It wasn’t just the experienced heads who stepped up, either. In the opening match against Ireland, Australia had five World Cup debutants.
Against Canada, four of them started again and proved they belonged. Mackenzie Arnold continues to show why she is Australia’s No. 1 goalkeeper, making a superb save with her feet and engaging in some elite timewasting nonsense to earn another clean sheet. Ahead of her, Clare Hunt continues to snuff out opposition attacks with no fuss; her poise belies her nine caps. Kyra Cooney-Cross put in yet another strong midfield shift, earning her the praise of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, among others.
Then there was Fowler. She could’ve ended the night with a brace if not for Carpenter’s heel and a VAR intervention. Instead, she will have to settle for a lone goal and her best performance in a Matildas jersey to date. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
All of these on-field performances were more than ably supported by a 27,706-strong crowd at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. It was the smallest crowd for the Matildas so far this World Cup but they made the noise of twice as many people. The large swathes of gold made sure to play their role, cheering every goal, chance, and save, as well as booing any perceived slight on the Matildas whether that came from the Canadians, the referee, or VAR.
But there was something more than the players on the field and the crowd in the stands. While the nation bubbled away with nervous anticipation throughout the day, this team was ready to go.
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Armed with the motivation of having their backs against the wall, a needing to win to stay in the tournament, the Matildas pulled everything together. Coach Tony Gustavsson spoke of the intangibles post-match.
“I hope a lot of coaches out there get to experience what I have experienced the last three days in terms of sometimes you just feel when things are going to go right,” he said.
“You feel it’s going to be a good game. You can’t really touch it. You can’t really explain why but you just feel it and I felt that already three days ago and to be part of this team for three days leading into this game, having that feeling. It has been a privilege to be part of it.”
So while the nation hoped for the best but expected the worst, the Matildas went about their business with a steely resolve. They corrected the defensive errors which contributed to the 3-2 loss against Nigeria. Gustavsson’s substitutions made sense. And the Matildas play from the get-go screamed that this was a team that wasn’t ready to be done.
Arguably the most important thing from this match was the way in which the Matildas went about their football. That calmness and maturity shown by Catley as she stood to take her penalty was sprinkled throughout the match. When Fowler’s first goal was disallowed for offside, there was never any doubt amongst the players that they would score another. The team had once again entered that promised land: the 90 minute performance.
The result and the performance were a renewing of faith. The heightened emotions of the home World Cup meant the reactions of the Nigeria loss were extreme, but not unwarranted. The nation feels things as deeply as it cares about this team in this tournament. There was a genuine fear that this team had somehow regressed to the beginning of the Gustavsson era: That they panicked when down, resorted to long balls and hopeful crosses to no one, and that one calamitous defensive error would beget another error.
There was a feeling that maybe the last 10 months of football had all been an apparition. That 11 wins in 13 games meant something but not enough when it really needed to.
Monday’s result and, more importantly, the way the team performed, was a reminder that one bad game doesn’t make a bad football team, even though it can make a bad tournament — just ask Canada.
Now the Matildas will enjoy a week’s break before returning to Sydney to face-off against the runner-up in Group D — most likely Denmark, but potentially England, China or Haiti depending on how Tuesday’s results pan out. No matter the opponent, Gustavsson’s charges’ attention will be solely on the task at hand.
And while the fans will begin to think of this next match too, for now they’ll be asking just one question: Where were you the night the Matildas beat Canada?