Australian Football has had numerous on-field successes, but have often failed to fully capitalise on them in the long-term. Will the appointment of Tony Gustavsson as Matildas head coach be different?
This week, the Australian football community was treated to a rare glimmer of positivity with the news that a head coach had finally been found for the Matildas.
The four-year appointment of Sweden’s Tony Gustavsson encountered widespread praise by fans and pundits alike, with the story taking pride of place on most sports' news media outlets.
FFA Chief Executive James Johnson revealed that the federation had “done their homework” over the last three months and after consulting the global market, felt assured that “out of the candidates we were interviewing, we picked the right person in Tony.”
The 47 year-old is best known for his success with the United States women’s national team as the assistant to Jill Ellis, having collected two FIFA World Cup trophies along the way, while an earlier stint with Pia Sundhage also produced an Olympic gold medal.
His arrival ushered in a promising new era for the most beloved sporting franchise in the country and with it, came a growing sense of optimism as a calendar jam-packed with major tournaments beckons.
In his opening interview, Gustavsson described himself as “passionate”, expressed his desire to take the Matildas to “the next level” and declared that he wouldn’t have taken on the role if he didn’t believe that Australia could win the World Cup.
“We are ranked seventh in the world now, at best we were ranked fourth. I have always said that Australia had the potential to beat the best team any day.”
He spoke openly and with a contagious enthusiasm that served as the breath of fresh air we have all been craving since the pandemic plunged the domestic game into chaos.
But, according to Gustavsson, it’s about more than just winning and it was the following line he delivered, which struck me most.
"It's about creating a legacy together with a nation and me being asked to be a small part of that, I'm really excited and appreciative,” he said.
Creating a “legacy” in Australian football, particularly with respect to the men’s Asian Cup in 2015, is an ambition that has often been discussed but has failed to manifest on a far-reaching scale.
Back in 2016, the New South Wales government launched a new $4 million Asian Cup legacy fund to deliver “better community facilities for local football clubs across the state.”
At the time, Northern NSW Football Chief Executive David Eland was glowing in his assessment.
“Players, referees, coaches and administrators of all ages and abilities are set to benefit from the fund which will magnify the social, health, educational and cultural benefits our game brings to society.”
But did it reach the heights that it proposed and beyond NSW, how did the Socceroos triumphant win and the country’s exemplary hosting of the tournament, reverberate across the rest of the nation?
As it stands, parents are still being charged outrageous amounts for their children to play, coaches and referees at the grassroots level continue to receive peanuts and hiring facilities is still a cost that gets factored into registration fees.
So what should the 2023 legacy look like?
Speaking to SEN radio after Australia and New Zealand secured the World Cup hosting rights, former Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou spoke befittingly of the occasion.
"It is significant for football, significant for Australia, it's going to be an unbelievable tournament. The Matildas are going great guns and hopefully, they have a good crack at it,” he said.
"The only thing again is it's got to leave a legacy for our game because the Sydney Olympics football was the most participated sport and we got nothing out of it.
"The  Asian Cup, we won and literally the next day, life went on without football having any sort of a legacy. Even the achievement itself hasn't really left much of a legacy.”
"I know it's going to be a fantastic tournament because Australia always holds fantastic tournaments, but I hope it's significant for football in the long term - things like facilities, infrastructure, governments are buying into the game. I'm hoping that's going to be the most positive outcome at all.”
I couldn’t agree more.
For decades, our beloved Matildas were forced to scrape, scrounge and scrap just to represent their country.
Former national team golden girl Joey Peters often recalls having to pay her own way at tournaments and remembers donning old Socceroos kits for competitive matches.
Ever since a group of Matildas players made the brave and unprecedented decision to go on strike in 2015 over their pay conditions, they have come a long way in stature but it’s largely materialised because of their impressive exploits on the pitch.
They too, have had to fight for recognition but in their own way.
It’s a testament too, to the growing number of women and girls playing the beautiful game with the figure rising by 11% in 12 months according to 2019 football census data released by FFA.
With football participation in Australia climbing to more than 1.95 million last year, the census went on to reveal that 22% of players were females.
But, what we do know with the benefit of hindsight, is that participation levels don’t necessarily equal success, particularly when it comes to seeing these numbers reflected in the attendance figures for both the A-League and W-League.
We also know that winning a trophy won’t be enough, that hosting the event superbly won’t create long-term benefits and while seeing a spike in young girls playing the game could benefit the next wave of aspiring Matildas, it still doesn’t solve the question of what type of legacy we hope to fulfill post the World Cup.
There is a good argument to suggest that much of this is articulated in the 10-year Business Case developed by FFA’s Women’s Football Council or FFA’s discussion paper on their eleven principles which includes things like;
- Increasing opportunity for revenue generation for the game.
- Creating a world-class National Training Centre for the Matildas, other National Teams and as a Centre of Excellence for emerging talent.
- Securing purpose-built administration facilities.
- Long term major events partnership State Government and other relevant institutions – additional revenue source.
- A regional Centre of Excellence for women’s leadership/coaching/refereeing programs, ideally in collaboration with FIFA and AFC.
- Access to special facilities and programs for the community.
These are incredible ambitions and would represent major shifts in Australian football but how these things will be achieved in a fiscally challenging climate is another matter entirely.
It also begs the question how these principles differ from the Whole of Football Plan released in 2015 but then again, being inundated with committees and discussion papers over the years, is nothing new for the football fraternity.
With that said, it’s my understanding that the federation are due to release another set of principles in due course but I am not privy to what the contents of the document are.
The pandemic has already drastically changed the landscape of Australian football and with rumours afoot that Member Federations could be at the mercy of major cuts, there may be more upheaval on the horizon.
So, when Gustavsson said that this Women’s World Cup was about more than just winning, he was right - because although a trophy would be nice, it won’t guarantee our sports long-term success.