After the nightmare in Nice, what does the future hold for the Matildas? Will investment flow and structural reforms begin in earnest, or is this the beginning of a slow decline for the Australian women’s national team?
When Ante Milicic trudged into the press conference room of Stade de Nice in the early hours of Sunday morning, he cast a crestfallen figure.
Over the 10 minutes of media interrogation that followed, the Matildas coach was despondent, even at times morose.
But as the 45-year-old struggled to articulate his thoughts – “I don’t know if there are any words to describe how I’m feeling” – he made an observation that should trouble even the most optimistic of Australian football fans.
“But gee, the European women’s game is moving so, so strongly in the right direction, particularly in the last few years,” Milicic mused.
“You look at how the leagues are improving in Europe and the investments that these countries are giving to the girls.”
His comments were hardly premeditated: these were the words of a hurting soul scrambling for something, anything, not those of someone offering composed foresight.
Yet in that emotional moment, Milicic accurately identified a significant risk facing the game in Australia: if we stand still, the Matildas will be rapidly overtaken as an arms race begins in women’s football.
Australia has, in many senses, been ahead of the game.
Significant money began to flow to the Matildas in 1993, by virtue of women’s football becoming an Olympic sport.
While a vast disparity with the male game remained, that funding – an unintended consequence on Australia’s gold medal obsession – set the national team on a trajectory that saw it quickly eclipse many traditional heavyweights.
It is no accident that Australia is currently ranked sixth in the world, while the Norwegian side that vanquished the Matildas on Saturday lie in 12th.
But Europe and other parts of the world have now woken up to the exponential potential of women’s football.
Just last week, Real Madrid announced that the mega club will finally establish a Liga Femenina Iberdrola side.
The unexpected success of Italy in France is attributable at least in part to significant recent investment by Italian clubs.
Australia may have stolen the march on our international rivals in the 1990s and 2000s. But the Matildas’ ongoing success cannot be taken for granted.
Now is the time for Football Federation Australia to stand up.
It is absurd to ask, as some are on social media, whether the Matildas would still be at the Women’s World Cup if Alen Stajcic was at the helm. Such counterfactuals are pointless, unanswerable and deeply unfair to all involved in the national team.
Yet it is a damning indictment on the FFA that those queries are being asked in the first place.
The “Staj saga” is just the latest, albeit particularly egregious, example of bumbling incompetence from the game’s Oxford Street administrators.
The promised independent review of the Stajcic sacking is long overdue.
But it must not – it simply cannot – obscure a deeper reflection on how Australian women’s football can keep pace in a rapidly progressing global environment.
Women’s football in Australia needs more funding and improved governance.
The W-League requires a longer season, greater commercial support and better capitalisation on its existing assets.
And perhaps most importantly, a renewed emphasis needs to be placed on development pathways and the junior national team programs.
Of course none of these needs are simple; getting them right will require diligence, much thought and significant cash – which the FFA lacks.
But the consequences of not acting, of persisting with a largely laissez-faire approach while other football associations plough money and energy into the game, are potentially dire.
The Matildas now turn their attention to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with qualification to begin later this year.
Barely minutes after the penalty heart-break, the players had already switched their gaze to the next prize.
“We have [the Olympics] to look forward to,” Caitlin Foord said.
“This team is very special and we’re going to do something special. Right now wasn’t our time.”
The core of this Matildas squad do have time on their side. Lydia Williams was the only member of the starting line-up against Norway who is over 30.
Glory in Tokyo next August or in four years’ time, when the Women’s World Cup may well take place in Australia, remains within reach of the current crop.
But many long-time observers of Australian women’s football quietly admit that they worry about the next generation which, aside from a handful of stars in the likes of Ellie Carpenter and Mary Fowler, appears to lack depth.
Two long weeks ago, when captain Sam Kerr fronted the press in Valenciennes ahead of the team’s opening match of the tournament, she admitted the weight of expectations on the team.
“All of our families and friends are going to be here, and all of Australia is going to be watching,” she said.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for four years.”
Unless the FFA urgently turns its attention to the long-term prosperity of Australian women’s football, Matildas fans could be waiting much longer for the sweet taste of World Cup success.
Kieran Pender is covering the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup for The World Game. Follow him on Twitter: @KieranPender