Impetus’ Kieran Yap reflects on a challenging week for Australia, and considers what can be taken from two tough encounters against Spain and Portugal (30/6/22).
Above: The Matildas team that started the game against Spain. It was a very tough game to watch. Photo: Football Australia.
I’ll be honest. From a Matildas perspective, it has been a flattening week. I am sad that they lost 7-0 to Spain, I am slightly disappointed that they could not defeat Portugal, and I am sad that the manager’s future is under question. But in the end, this might be a small price to pay to avoid calamity. The players needed a rest.
Finding opportunities to play European opposition is increasingly difficult. They play competitive internationals almost all year round. Between World Cup qualifying, and Euros there is little opportunity for exhibition games on the continent. Australia, like the USWNT can only meet them on their terms, which is rare.
It is unfortunate that this came at the end of the European season. Had the available window been in April. It would have been easy for our English-based guns to jump on a quick flight, battle it out with Spain and Portugal, then fly back to club land. But the Netherlands and Mexico had already organized to play the Spanish in that international window.
The result of this was players reaching the end of a tough couple of years, and needing a break.
Since 2020, the core group of familiar Matildas has moved across the world during a pandemic, adjusted to a new league, played in an Olympic Games, an Asian Cup (Both under strict quarantine rules), then completed very demanding European seasons.
In between this, they have attended national team camps, and flown back to Australia to play the USA, Brazil, and New Zealand. A rest in the middle of all of that might have helped, but a rest at the end of all of that would still have been required.
This particularly applies to star striker Sam Kerr. It is true that her Chelsea teammates have continued to play internationals. But unlike them, she has been separated from her family in Perth for almost two years. In the time since she moved to Chelsea in early 2020, she has played 40 times for the club and 20 times for Australia, often for 90 minutes.
The facts are, she is not alone. This is the first real chance for an off-season in some of these players’ entire careers. Before they moved to Europe, players like Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord moved from W-League to NWSL and back.
The senior players that did make the squad for Spain were ones that had spent an entire 2020/21 A-League Women’s season at home. Emily Gielnik, Clare Polkinghorne, and Tameka Yallop all have spent slightly less time abroad than the others, with Katrina Gorry only relatively recently moving to Norway.
They still had something left in the tank for Portugal and Spain, but may need a breather before 2023.
It is true that some foresight may have prevented an inexperienced squad being called upon. But that might have taken planning around fatigue over a year in advance. If anybody was to be asked how they will be feeling physically and mentally next June, it would be a guess at best.
In essence, the scheduling of the Spain game was a gamble. If our top players had been available, it was a great opportunity to test themselves against the best. As it happens they were not, so others were called upon.
In stepped some of the best up-and-coming players on the verge of national team selection. It was always a big ask to throw them into a contest with the world’s greatest side, and the question being asked is, what was to gain?
Only time will tell on that, but some important players have their first caps, and Jamilla Rankin will probably now be even better prepared for the Under 20 World Cup in August.
None of this makes 7-0 easy to watch, but this was a line-up of eleven players that had never played together as a unit. The thrashing against Spain was poor, but both the manager and players were clear on the objective coming into the match, and it was not to win at all costs.
This was not Spain’s best side, and this was not Australia’s best side. The frightening thing about this game was not the score, or the performance. It was the gap between the very best domestic players and international football. Although we all knew it was possible, it was still difficult to watch in real-time.
These games were not a write-off. Out of it, we have determined that Charli Grant really is ready for international level. She was exceptional across two 90-minute games for the first time in her Matildas career.
Emily Gielnik has struggled for form for club and country in the past year, and her performance against Portugal should give her a boost of confidence. If Gielnik can find her best form she adds a new dimension to Australia’s attack.
However, as frustrating as the two matches may have been, there was no point pushing players mentally and physically. It has been a tough two years for almost everybody on the planet. The senior Matildas have spent more time than most of us in quarantines, and in airports travelling anywhere and everywhere but home.
They have been doing press conferences in masks and spent Olympic games trapped in hotels, while the rest of us yell advice from our couches and go back to bed as soon as the game is over.
They needed a rest. if the price of longevity in this team is a bad loss in a meaningless friendly. That seems affordable.