Opinion

After pomp and ceremony in Paris, Australian eyes turn to Matildas

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Would it truly be a World Cup opener without pyrotechnics, tifos and masses of choreographed children?

On Friday evening, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup began in style in Paris with a dazzling and uplifting opening ceremony.

FIFA’s promotional literature had promised that the pre-match entertainment would be “bright, bold and beautiful with artistic elements echoing light and female empowerment”, and it certainly delivered. 

France then delivered on the pitch, crushing an otherwise well-regarded Korea Republic without appearing troubled.

The French are considered a real possibility to reach the final, even a chance of becoming the first nation to be simultaneously male and female world champions, and their performance at the Parc des Princes did little to dampen those expectations.

The sold-out affair was an enticing hint of a great month ahead. The atmosphere was buoyant and the match entertaining, notwithstanding France’s dominance.

If the remaining 51 matches of the World Cup can match this standard, we are in for an excellent tournament. 

But for Australian fans, the opening match in Paris was a pleasant distraction – an amuse-bouche – before the first course is served.

That meal will begin on Sunday (9pm AEST), when the Matildas face Italy in the industrial town of Valenciennes. 

Italy represent somewhat of an unknown quantity, Le Azzurre having failed to qualify for the World Cup for the best part of two decades.

But with increased investment in recent years from the Italian mega-clubs, women’s football in Italy is on the rise again.

Australia are the undoubted favourite, but any early-tournament nerves could play into the hands of their opposition. 

Following the Italian encounter in northern France, the Matildas head south to warmer climes.

Unlike the Socceroos at the 2018 World Cup, who were based in Kazan and travelled to and from their training facilities to host cities the day prior to each match, the Matildas are a city-to-city travelling show.

The first stop will be Montpellier, just inland from the Mediterranean, where the Australians will face arch-rivals Brazil on Thursday (2am Friday AEST).

With Brazil expected to beat Jamaica in their opening match, the Selecao are likely to have momentum behind them; the game may well determine who tops Group C. 

The Matildas have had the edge on the South American heavyweights in recent times.

Last year Australia beat Brazil 3-1 at the Tournament of Nations, while the Matildas were undefeated across three encounters with the Brazilians in 2017. 

Whatever the results in Valenciennes and Montpellier, the qualifying structure of this edition of the Women’s World Cup means that Australia will travel to Grenoble at the foot of the French Alps with a chance of progressing to the next round. 

In the alpine city, the Matildas will face a possible tournament surprise package: Jamaica.

Led by United States-based Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, the highest goalscorer in qualifying globally, the Reggae Girlz are fortunate to even be in France – they needed to scrape together funding with donations and support from Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella. 

But the Matildas will underestimate Jamaica at their peril.

By the final match-day of the group, the Reggae Girlz will likely be fighting for their life to progress as one of the better third-placed teams – or at the very least eager to put in a good showing in the last appearance of their debut World Cup. 

The road ahead is not easy, but the Matildas have every right to be confident. Ante Milicic’s charges are the most-talented group Australia has ever sent to a tournament.

The Matildas won their first three matches of 2019 convincingly, dispatching New Zealand, Korea Republic and Argentina with ease. 

In April they were unlucky not to edge world number one the United States, in a high-scoring thriller.

While the 3-0 loss to the Netherlands last week raised justifiable concerns – as did the eleventh-hour withdrawal of Laura Alleway and injury to Mary Fowler – there is not yet any need to fret.

In the foreword to materials for Women’s Football Convention, a two-day conference ahead of the World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino observed that 2019 “is an unprecedented time for women’s football.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that we are entering a new era for the women’s game," he continued.

As the Matildas prepare to begin their Women’s World Cup campaign on Sunday, Australian football may well be entering uncharted territory, too.

A debut semi-final appearance seems within grasp – a journey to the final itself would not be unimaginable. 

With Sam Kerr flying high as one of the nation’s most high-profile athletes and Australia bidding for the 2023 edition of the tournament, rays of sunshine are appearing on a broader horizon that has so often looked overcast. 

With a dash of good fortune, 2019 can be an unprecedented time for the Matildas and Australian football. 

Kieran Pender is covering the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup for The World Game. Follow him on Twitter: @KieranPender.