Australia's winding road to the Women's World Cup 'Group of Death'
It's a long way from Australia to Canada. It's a longer way still if you follow the circuitous path the Matildas took to the 2015 Women's World Cup.
Before booking their place and getting drawn into the deathly Group D, along with the USA, Sweden and Nigeria, there was a whole lot of drama.
This past April, Dutch head coach Hesterine de Reus, the successor to long-time head coach Tom Sermanni (who had left Australia to take over the USA in early 2013) had something of a mutiny on her hands. A stricter type, she succeeded the mellow and approachable Sermanni to become the first female coach of the Australian women. While she was qualified and sought to push the team to the next level, de Reus was not welcomed by her new team.
In fact, de Reus would find out that the players had urged the federation not to make an appointment solely on the basis of gender. "I thought, it's not a nice way to start, to start with a fight as I did my whole career," she told the Guardian. "I didn't expect to have to fight for my position in a national team that was highly ranked, and in an open-minded country."
It is a touch odd for a woman to feel discriminated against on the basis of her gender after being appointed to coach a women's team. So it wasn't altogether surprising to learn that there was more going on. Players griped about de Reus' disciplinarian methods, like keeping them in the hotel the entire day on road trips. They were not unanimous in their discontent, however.
The disagreement split apart a team once lauded for its chemistry. Still, through the Professional Footballers Association, a complaint was lodged to the Football Federation Australia. De Reus was dismissed on the eve of the Asian Cup, which would decide who got to go to the World Cup.
Alen Stajcic, appointed as the interim manager to succeed de Reus, steadied things. Australia came second at the Asian Cup in Vietnam, gamely losing the final 1-0 to world champions Japan -- hardly anything to be ashamed of, especially considering they had tied 2-2 in their group stage opener. With the finals appearance, the Matildas punched their ticket to a sixth consecutive World Cup.
Their draw, however, is harsh on them. The USA are number one in the world; Nigeria are the African champions, and since the Swedes, one of the world's better teams historically and presently, weren't granted one of the six seeds, they had the misfortune of all being drawn together. The Sydney Morning Herald was unequivocal about it, calling it a "horror draw" and a "cruel blow."
For a rising team, this is a tough break. Australia is decidedly on the way up in the women's game, having reached the quarterfinals in the last two editions of the World Cup. In 2011, they did so with a squad that was very young and has largely remained intact today. It boasts new stars like attackers Kyah Simon, Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord â who was voted the best young player at the last World Cup aged just 16 -- and midfielders Emily van Egmond and Katrina Gorry, who led the team in scoring at the Asian Cup with three long-distance goals. But at age 30, the team's veteran strikers Lisa De Vanna and Kate Gill, the program's leaders in appearances and goals, respectively, are still in the fold as well.
Ultimately, a captivating group stage might not be the worst thing Australian women's soccer. It could use a shot in the arm, frankly. Cutbacks have forced the public broadcaster, ABC, to stop showing the national W-League. That very league, probably for economic reasons, has a regular season of just 12 games.
If this potentially exciting young team can overcome this difficult group stage, go on a run, and capture national attention in their home country, it could propel their sport to mainstream relevance. And in the end, this draw might not have been such a bad thing.
But that's a big if.