History beckons as Matildas face old foes at Tokyo Olympics | Samantha Lewis
It was as if the script had already been written; the characters, the setting, the rising and falling action already mapped out.
In April, as the Matildas’ group-stage games for the Tokyo Olympics were revealed, the storylines of Group G emerged like an echo from the past. New Zealand, Sweden, and the USA: three teams, three histories, three narratives that, come 21 July, will shape the start of this new era for the Australian women’s national team.
It is fitting, then, that the first game the Matildas will play in Tokyo will be against the side that began it all: New Zealand. Almost 43 years ago, on a patchy suburban field in southern Sydney, Australia played their first ever “A” international women’s match against their Kiwi counterparts. It ended 2-2 that day, the first of eight draws that the two sides would play over the course of 50 games.
That draw was, in a roundabout way, a kind of foreshadowing of the shared moment that was to come when the two nations won the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. While football is a sport based on rivalry, it is equally one built on co-operation. That Australia have played New Zealand more than any other national team, and that Australia’s former head coach Tom Sermanni – who famously led the side to Australia’s first ever Asian Cup win in 2010 – now leads the Football Ferns, speaks to this intertwined history; the ebbs and flows of competition and collaboration.
Sweden, too, are part of Australia’s historic “firsts.” While they are the least familiar of the three nations in Group G in terms of number of games played, they were the nation against whom Australia claimed their first Olympic point: a 1-1 draw in the Sydney 2000 Games thanks to a goal to the reverential Cheryl Salisbury.
However, Australia have yet to beat Sweden in a competitive match. Indeed, perhaps more than any other group opponent, the Matildas’ match against Sweden will be fuelled largely by tournament-forged revenge: they knocked the Matildas out at the quarter-final stage of the 2004 Olympics and the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Yet despite several medals across both major tournaments, and having contested the Games since women’s football was first introduced in 1996, Sweden are yet to win a trophy. They, too, carry history on their shoulders.
But Australia have insider knowledge here. New Matildas boss Tony Gustavsson hails from Sweden and has had a closer glimpse than most Olympic-bound coaches at Sweden’s club and national team set-ups. Australia’s 0-0 draw against Sweden in April was a testament to what that historical knowledge can bring to his arguably under-done, underdog Matildas side.
Where Gustavsson will come most handy, though, is in the group’s final match of this history-repeating triumvirate: the USA. Current world champions, a 44-match unbeaten run, a reigning Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks; this is a team Australia has only ever beaten once in 29 attempts, a 1-0 friendly victory at the 2017 Tournament of Nations.
Gustavsson was assistant to USA coach Jill Ellis that day, as well as during their successful Women’s World Cup run two years later. Almost all of the USA squad that won the 2019 tournament will be heading to Tokyo, too, making Gustavsson – who was part of their inner sanctum of tactics and training sessions in France – one of the most knowledgeable opposition coaches capable of exploiting USA’s weaknesses.
These teams also have intriguing history with each other. The USA, for example – despite being the most most successful team in international history with four World Cups and four Olympic golds – have a bone to pick with Sweden, to whom they sensationally lost in Rio in 2016.
Gustavsson was there then, too, watching his fellow Swede and former mentor Pia Sundhage – with whom he coached the USA to a gold medal in 2012 – as her stoic Swedish side defended their way past his USA to Olympic silver. Sundhage, for her part, now coaches Brazil, who Australia could meet in the quarter-finals; another historic collision-course forming before our eyes.
Expectations for Tokyo, given all that has happened and continues to happen, will vary. New Zealand come into the Games having not played a competitive match since March 2020. Sweden have an ageing squad while the USA have not entirely convinced in their preparation matches, scraping results against Portugal and Nigeria in June.
There is no predicting, then, how this will go for Australia, who are still winless under Gustavsson after a difficult, inactive pandemic period. But that is where the spirit of tournaments like the Olympics truly lives: for everything that can be gained from a study of history, there are still three matches that lay ahead in an unknowable future. That is the script the Matildas must now write for themselves.