Impetus’ Kris Goman was our representative at Comm Bank Stadium for Australia’s first game on home soil since early 2020. She sums up the evening in words and pictures plus brings us all the news from the post-match press conferences.
Above: Clare Polkinghorne after scoring the Matildas’ opening goal. Photo: Kris Goman
The last time I saw the Matildas play at Commbank Stadium (then Bankwest Stadium) was in March 2020. It was the match against China that sent the Matildas to the top of the table in the Olympic qualifiers. The match that was originally supposed to be played in Wuhan was moved to Sydney because there was a virus running rampant. It was just weeks before the world shut down and matches were played in empty stadiums globally. It felt lucky that all the Olympic qualifiers were moved to Sydney and we got to witness games that should have been played in China.
It feels like it’s come full circle now. We’re moving to a post-Covid phase. Most people in Australia are now vaccinated, lockdown restrictions are easing and the Matildas are back in town. But post-Covid is not the same as pre-Covid and this was evident at this match. All spectators had to be fully vaccinated and vaccination certificates were examined to gain entry.
More interestingly, the players were subject to strict quarantine bubble conditions that meant they didn’t have to quarantine for 14 days. It was the only way to get them back to their clubs within the international break timeframe but came with strict conditions. It essentially means they are restricted to their hotel, their training grounds, and the match stadium and can’t interact with any locals, including their families.
Because the Australian borders have been closed since the pandemic began, all the overseas-based Matildas haven’t been home for over 18 months and haven’t seen their families in that time. And this match would be the first time for many that they could actually see their families. But they had to stay over two metres away and could not touch them. This resulted in tears at the end of the match as players waved to their families in the crowd.
I won’t go into any detail about the match, as that’s already well documented, other than to say Australia beat Brazil 3-1, had the bulk of possession, celebrated Alanna Kennedy’s 100th match, and debuted Remy Siemsen and Bryleeh Henry.
One thing of note though was the crowd and in particular the Brazilian supporters. They brought the passion, they brought the songs and they brought their voices. Although they made up probably only about 10% of the crowd, they made about 70% of the noise. When Adriana scored and Marta came on, it was as loud as when Sam Kerr was introduced and when Claire Polkinghorne scored the first goal. It made the night electric.
But back to the Covid restrictions and the final thing it impacted was the post-game press conference. Because the players weren’t allowed near the media, it was held via zoom. Not that big a deal but the logistics of attending immediately after the match made it interesting. Tracey Holmes was obviously in the car park with the Brazilians who were all honking their horns. After finding a quiet spot in the stadium to listen, I was asked to move outside. Thankfully the crowds were gone by this time but tuning in from a bench outside the stadium wasn’t ideal.
Unlike normal zoom meetings, the players and coaches couldn’t see those posing the questions. Caitlin Foord was up first. Sam Lewis asked if the difficult couple of weeks and external pressure affected their performance. Foord said she felt no pressure and they just wanted to enjoy the home fans and being on home soil again. Tracey Holmes asked what changes or confidence Gustavsson has brought to the team. She said he’s got a lot of intelligence and he’s brought out the best of each player’s ability and wants the team to be able to express themselves and do what they do best. She went on to comment on Mary Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross and said it was exciting to watch them grow and become a big part of the team. When asked the most difficult aspect of the last couple of weeks, she replied it has been hardest to be here and not see their families. They’ve been able to block out outside noise. There was a question about building to the World Cup. The year missed to Covid meant they lost a year with Tony but she feels they have plenty of time to grow and learn and it’s exciting. Did the team put healthy pressure on each other to perform? Their goals for the matches were to keep a clean sheet and win. They weren’t able to stop one goal from getting past but were excited by winning. They now want two wins and another good performance and a clean sheet.
Pia Sundhage was up next and spoke about her relationship with Tony when they were coaching the USWNT together and how she gave him his first break and how it was good to see him here being successful. She said they were friends off the field but business on the field.
I asked Brazilian captain, Tamires whether the small but very vocal Brazilian fans impacted their game. She said the support was amazing and they could hear the songs of the local Brazilian clubs being sung. She was very thankful for the support and said it was incredible.
Tony Gustavsson was the last to be interviewed and was thoughtful and considered in all his answers. You almost don’t need to ask a leading question with Tony because he’ll elaborate anyway which is refreshing.
Speaking about his personal view on the experience of his first game in charge on Australian soil, Gustavsson said: “I could get used to this! It was a phenomenal atmosphere and the way the players played. I thank them for giving me a win for my first time on Australian soil. It was a special moment for me.”
I asked Gustavsson about how there’s been some criticism of the defence and how this squad is heavy on defenders and how the Matildas coach felt things looked today: “We had a different formation today and I said before that I want to be flexible and fluid in our formation. Identity doesn’t sit in formation, it sits in what you do. What impressed me tonight was that we had limited time to prepare with players arriving on different days. For the players to absorb everything we did double sessions and some walk-throughs. For the players to execute that game plan in such a short time was impressive.
“We did look into improving our defence for the game, but not at the expense of our attacking mindset. I do think we got dispossessed in bad areas at times in the game and we could have coughed up a few goals. We were lucky, to be honest. We still have things to clean up, it was far from perfect. It’s a step in the right direction, but we still have work to do.”
He went on to talk further about the qualities of the players in the camp: “The players’ ability to take in information and execute game plans is enormous. I was disappointed in our physicality against Ireland. Tonight, the players showed that they wanted it more than Brazil. It helped that the fans carried us forward. We spoke beforehand about feeding off the energy that the crowd creates and playing the game with them. Whether that’s making a tackle and you get a response from the crowd – you bring the energy that creates into your body.
“The teams that want to compete at the highest level need to get used to performing under pressure and thriving under it – seeing pressure as a privilege is important. Everyone has been phenomenal. The prep work and the players’ response was impressive.”
Still in her embryonic days as an international, Kyra Cooney-Cross produced her finest performance in a Matildas shirt in the match, with some outstanding vision shown in passes from midfield out to the flanks. The Swede was impressed and highlighted the wider benefits to the team of having the Melbourne Victory teenager playing in the number six role.
“I need to build a playing style around the qualities of the team and Kyra has shown time after time in the training environment that she can cope with pressure, but also something she hasn’t got enough credit for and that’s her defensive presses. We tried her (at six) in the Ireland game and she was one of our best players. It’s also another way of getting EvE (Emily van Egmond) higher up the park. She is a natural eight or ten but has played a lot at six. She is a game-changer. She had one assist and one goal tonight. It shows when she plays higher up the park she can give us points as well.
Asked about Alanna Kennedy’s performance for her hundredth cap, Gustavsson cautioned against focusing too much on her loss of possession which led to Brazil’s goal. “I think she played more confident tonight than against Ireland. She showed that she can embrace that pressure. She took a big step in the right direction tonight.”
Gustavsson ended the conference by cautioning about getting too carried away with the result.
“We played a Brazil team who are rebuilding right now. They had a lot of debutants and a completely new team with Marta and Debinha on the bench. We need to balance talk about this performance. Are there things I’m happy with? Yes. But we need to stay humble and realise that we have a lot of work to do.”