Opinion

'Never say die' - How Gustavsson can unleash Matildas' full potential

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In 2013, after losing Sweden’s Super Cup final, current US women’s national team and Manchester United forward Christen Press sat down at her computer and began to write.

Press had been keeping a blog during her time in the Damallsvenskan – Sweden’s top women’s league – where she’d moved following the collapse of America’s Women’s Professional Soccer league.

She didn’t realise it at the time, but Press had also gradually fallen out of love with the game in her home country.

Consumed by anxiety and perfectionism – and growing to doubt she’d ever achieve her dream of representing the USA after being left off the London Olympics roster – the winger felt a change of scenery was needed.

In her blog, Press talked about how Sweden introduced her to a different type of football.

It was slower and less physical than the style she was used to, but she felt herself adding new dimensions to her game: using her body and movements to “talk” to her teammates, timing and angling her runs, knowing when to burst forward and when to reset and rebuild.

Outside of her technical development, though, Press also learned something else during her time in Sweden: how to embrace – but not be overwhelmed by – expectation.

“I’ve tried really hard the last few years to be less attached to winning,” Press wrote in one post.

“I would like to fight as hard as I possibly can in each and every game, and win or lose, leave it at that and move forward. I know in my heart that that is the mindset I need to be a successful and happy athlete.”

Central to that inner development was the Matildas’ new head coach, Tony Gustavsson.

In her second Swedish season, Press joined Gustavsson’s Tyreso FF, who he’d become head coach of following a short spell as US women’s national team assistant under Pia Sundhage.

That’s where Press and Gustavsson met, and where he realised this anxious young player had qualities he wanted to nurture.

After Tyreso lost that Cup final in 2013, Press recalled what the Swede did next.

“Tony brought the team together after the penalty shoot-out,” she wrote.

“He wanted us to keep our heads up and feet moving forward. It was in that moment that I first noticed what makes Tony stand out as a coach.

"He was truly part of the team. Instead of being disappointed or angry at us, he felt the game, our anger, and our disappointment with us.

"The loss marked the beginning of a season that would take us, as a team, through hell and high water.”

That season culminated in Tyreso FF reaching the final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which they lost to German giants Wolfsburg, before the club folded the following year.

That season also catapulted Press onto the US women’s national team radar, where she has since become a mainstay.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate something that Gustavsson, more than any other coach who was considered to take over the Matildas, can offer Australia’s 'golden generation'.

Namely, how to embrace – but not be overwhelmed by – expectation.

The Matildas are heading into the next four years with an incredible weight on their shoulders.

Since announcing themselves on the international stage in 2015 thanks to a spirited performance at the Women’s World Cup in Canada, Australia’s women’s national team have experienced a meteoric rise in the eyes of the Australian public.

They’ve been voted the country’s most-loved sports team in consecutive years. Their star players – Sam Kerr, Steph Catley, Ellie Carpenter – have become household names after moving to some of the biggest football clubs in the world.

And three years from now, they will be front-and-centre of every newspaper and television screen across the country when Australia and New Zealand host the biggest women’s tournament on the planet.

The expectation, in other words, is building – not just from within but throughout the rest of the country, too.

This, ultimately, is why Gustavsson matters: he knows how to help them navigate those treacherous waters.

“I’ve been in the pressure-cooker a lot of times, both as a head coach and as an assistant coach”, Gustavsson told ABC after his appointment.

“I know what it takes in order to perform under pressure and I hope I can spread that feeling and belief into the Matildas.

“Especially in the World Cup in 2023 on home soil… it’s getting these players used to performing with expectations on their shoulders and not see that as a burden, but something that actually lifts us up.”

After what many described as a “disappointing” tournament in 2019 following various off-field calamities, the Matildas are now being thrown into an even hotter pot.

Australian football believes this team can win it all. Gustavsson does, too.

With four major tournaments approaching over the next four years, and with a group of players who will be nearing their career-best form, expectations have perhaps never been higher.

The question now is how they will respond. Like Press in 2013, this team has arrived at a pivotal moment.

It’s Gustavsson’s job now to teach them how to embrace it and move forward together – regardless of the trophies they could collect along the way.

“Obviously, winning is a part of it, but winning is the smaller part of a bigger picture here,” Gustavsson said.

“It’s about creating a legacy together with a nation and me being asked to play a small part of that.

“I know how important it is in a classroom environment, being a teacher or being a coach is to embrace that culture but also (to) look at the individual differences (in order) to be able to get the most out of each player and each team.

“I’ve always been keen on my teams being a team that always strives to be one day better, not just one day older.

"The foundation and the core of everything we do is that wonderful spirit and the fighting attitude and the ‘never say die’ mindset.”

While winning the 2023 Women’s World Cup is the goal, it is not the final destination for Gustavsson or the Matildas.

Over the next four years, Australian football will experience its own transformation, with women at the heart of the project.

As Press’ own career has shown, success starts off the field, and if Gustavsson’s small role in her trajectory is anything to go by, the Matildas – current and future – have plenty to look forward to.