Those Magnificent Matildas – Part Deux

I wrote the below article in mid 2015 just after the Matildas had been eliminated from the World Cup praising the players, coach and their narratives. Since then the team has gone on from strength to strength capturing the imagination of more Australian sporting fans an giving them some serious momentum. Only Melissa Barbieri has gone from the side mentioned below.

Then there’s Sam Kerr, the most dangerous weapon the FFA have for promoting the game at the moment after her star turn in the recent matches against Brazil. This is a special team and the World Cup in two years’ time will be very interesting.

 

The Australian women’s Soccer team ‘The Matildas’ had been no strangers to being in the World Cup Quarter Final before they walked out on to the pitch in bright sunshine in Edmonton last Sunday morning to face Japan. In China in 2007 they went down to eventual finalists Brazil at this stage and then in 2011 Sweden (who would go on to finish third) sent them packing.

 

This time though they had to lift their standards even higher to make this stage surviving a very tough group and then winning their first ever knockout game with a win against Brazil. Whilst Australia went down fighting against a team they knew they could beat (and the World Champions no less) the efforts of this team should be admired, celebrated and above all else respected.

 

The stories alone of some players overcoming adversity are stuff of a midday Channel 7 tele-movie starring Farrah Fawcett such is the drama.

 

– First off there is the co-captain and firebrand Lisa DeVanna. In 2007 the West Australian was fueled on the grief of her father’s recent death to become one of the top scorers in the World Cup and made the team of the tournament. After these dizzying heights she went back to the real world and her job at a 24-hour servo out the back of the Perth suburb of Canning Vale. DeVanna was always a little rough around the edges to say the least. She was notorious for telling a coach or teammate to kindly go and get f*cked with the odd chair or training aide thrown on the pitch in her time playing for Perth clubs. Even her former coach at the time Alistair Edwards said at the time that she was a brat. This was much the same when Perth Glory lost a penalty shootout with Melbourne Victory thanks to a controversial refereeing decision that saw DeVanna storm down the players race yelling obscenities and threats at the ref (with the obligatory chair thrown on to the pitch). This raw emotion and anger was a necessary evil to the way she played the game. When she was on top she was unbeatable, when she struggled with form she disappeared from games, showed up late for training and wondered why she bothered with the effort when the men got all the kudos and money.

 

The anger and focus fed her competitive nature and explosive brilliance but Matildas coach Allan Stanic managed to curb her penchant for threats and potential violence as well as apathy by giving her the captain’s armband and making her a leader of the young side. This seemed to focus her attention on her responsibility to the team and relied on her experience going in to their third World Cup rather than having the potential to see red in flashpoints during games. This risk from Stanic worked wonders with DeVanna having an excellent tournament. At 30 this was probably her last World Cup but we may yet see her in Rio in 2016.

 

– Stanic is a story within himself. The 41 year old was an average state player but it was in coaching that he found his niche after a career ending knee injury. After coaching Sydney FC to three W-League titles and time with the U-20 womens’ national side he stepped in to take over the senior side and mop up the mess left by self styled disciplinarian Hesterine de Rues who had completely divided and demoralised a team strong on a positive team culture. He changed the playing style of the side which meant the end of the international careers for much loved veterans like Kate Gill and invested in youth that much like the Socceroos has reaped benefits. He admitted after the Japan loss that his young side had panicked but he had the belief that they would learn from it. To think he is achieving what the great Tom Sermanni had done in the previous two World Cups he’s off to a great start.

 

– Then there is also Michelle Heyman. The girl from Illawarra was a star for Canberra United in their W-League title win in 2014/15 and was only in Canberra because she found the capital more accepting of her sexuality than other cities saying that even in women’s sport homophobia is still prevalent.

 

– The young sensation Sam Kerr is only now perhaps starting to not be unfairly seen just as Daniel Kerr’s sister. Interviews with the 21 year old are now about her exciting goal celebrations, her blistering pace and her journey to be on course to be one of the best in the world rather than being the younger sibling of the troubled former AFL star. Her answers in interviews in previous times were always met with youthful exuberance and teenage naivety with wins seen sometimes as ‘super wicked’ and a loss or other band news as ‘a bit of a bummer but that’s cool’. In this tournament she took on more of the media role now giving careful answers in the neutral monotone of a professional athlete in another sign of her maturing in to a star on and off the pitch for the team.

 

– The two senior goalkeepers in the squad have their own intriguing stories. At 35 and now the mother of a toddler Melissa Barbieri somehow made it back to the top level and a third world cup. The former captain wasn’t there to also just sit on the pine playing in the first game against the might of the USA. To still be playing at this level at that age is all more amazing when the lack of money in the women’s side of the sport normally means most players by that time (if not succumbing to injury by then) had normally got day jobs, had families and generally chosen life through necessity more than anything else.

 

– Her fellow goalkeeper Lydia Williams went around the long way to get to the top level. Born in Katanning (the home of first ever Aboriginal Socceroo Harry Williams) Lydia was brought up in Kalgoorlie travelling to remote Aboriginal communities with her father who was an indigenous elder learning the ways of her people. To make her upbringing even more intriguing was the fact her mother was a native of Oklahoma and she had pets such as Kangaroos and other native wildlife. Despite being in the squads in 2007 and 2011 she had only played one World Cup game coming in to Canada 2015 yet played four in this tournament starring with a string of fantastic saves with memories of her inspirational father Ron still fresh in the mind even though he had passed away from cancer long before she had become an international. The fact she was in Canada was a miracle in itself. After tearing an ACL in July last year (the same one she had torn previously) it seemed as though she would miss out but due to sheer willpower and the big risk coming back from injury before her diagnosed return she managed to make it and play well.

 

– Last but not least one of the great stories of this World Cup was Kyah Simon. The 24 year old was brought up in Quaker’s Hill in the Blacktown area of Sydney where her parents worked a host of menial jobs to make sure they could give Kyah and her siblings every opportunity academically and in sport after they had grown up below the bread line and looked down upon because of the fact they were indigenous. Kyah was well on her way to a great career but injured her knee weeks before she was to be offered an AIS scholarship at 16. This didn’t deter her as she came back and managed to debut for the Matildas a year later at a very young age and played at the World Cup in 2011 scoring twice. After a career threatening knee injury and short time playing in the lucrative American league she bounced back in this tournament scoring decisive goals for the Matildas and becoming a household name saying in every interview that all she hoped is that she inspired others. Her mother, brothers and numerous other friends and relatives followed her and the team around the vast space that is Canada travelling thousands of miles showing the support they had always shown her. The sacrifice of her parents also wasn’t restricted to Kyah with one of her brothers now helping improve indigenous health through his role with the New South Wales Health Department.

 

The Matildas next big challenge is to qualify for and hopefully do well at Rio 2016 which, unlike the men’s tournament, does not have age restrictions and is pretty much another World Cup. The achievements of this side in a time when funding for such parts of sport are being cut cannot be ignored. Some of the stories of the players would no doubt be replicated in other women’s sports but will probably never make news which is a tragedy in itself. This side symbolises a lot of the adversity that many more of the lesser Australian sides face in different sports in different tournaments around the world. Many of these sides are treated like Victorian era circus freaks where all that is missing is someone in a top hat calling out to ‘pay threepence to see the freaks!’ thanks for publicity stunts like the nude calendar in the 90s and dual international Elise Perry playing for Australia in two sports that was much about novelty as it was natural talent.

 

We should be tremendously proud of everyone involved with this team.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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