From their earliest moments in France, Australia showed us this could happen. Back on June 9, when the Matildas debuted at this year’s World Cup, they did so with disappointment, losing a 2-1 result to Italy that, in its final margin, could have been much worse. Wins against Brazil and Jamaica provided some hope for a rebound as well as a directive from the team’s captain, Sam Kerr, but ultimately, the doubt amplified by “haters” was well-founded. Even in the middle of the second half against Jamaica, a game that ended 4-1, the Aussies seemed far too vulnerable.
They played better today, in their Round of 16 match against Norway, but just like every other game this tournament, Australia didn’t seem themselves, so much so that their final match of the competition, a 1-1 draw that saw them eliminated on penalty kicks, 4-1, felt like an apt end. It’s not that they were bad, nor were they never good, but for a team cast as one of the pre-tournament favorites, they never looked that part.
Now, the post-mortem will begin, one where it may prove difficult to distinguish between the causes from the symptoms. The ailment is not reaching the World Cup in their best state, but was that just a function of form, having lost to the United States and the Netherlands in the leadup to France? Did the health issues that kept the Matildas banged up and hamstrung over their four-game spell knock them from the competition’s top level? Were the expectations that built after winning the 2017 Tournament of Nations too much, too soon, or were those expectations right, but did a young team that had never held a favorite’s status need a competition like this to learn?
Take one view of their ouster, and all those factors look like antecedents. They led to where we are now. But it’s just as logical to see all those reasons as symptomatic another issue. Maybe pre-tournament form, health, expectations didn’t lead Australia to lose. Maybe losing was just another symptom of Australia’s real problem.
Whether you buy that hinges on how you feel about experience; or, more specifically, how the lessons of a life at the top of international soccer can offset the burden of status. All the Australian players expressed confidence going into France, echoing the expectation that they would claim their country’s first World Cup, but often in those situations, what was once fun starts to feel like an obligation. There's less joy in victory than is expected of you. When you win, it’s more relief than triumph, leaving you walking from fields without the adrenaline rush that had become your fuel.
Teams like Germany and the United States have lived in that world for so long, they develop their players into it. Along with the maturation of skills, bodies, and mentalities, there’s a comfort that develops from not knowing any other standard. Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan have never had to consider what their national team lives were like before the U.S. had to be good. The U.S. has always been good.
From here forward, Australia will have to be, too. Just because they lost in France’s Round of 16 doesn’t mean the expectations, going forward, will change. Players like Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Alanna Kennedy and Steph Catley all have at least two more World Cups in them, health permitting, while a generation of talent like Ellie Carpenter, Karly Roestbakken, Mary Fowler and Teagan Micah will be in their primes by the next World Cup.
That doesn’t consider a player like Chloe Logarzo, who is only 24 years old. Emily van Egmond’s been around forever, but she’s only 25. Hayley Raso’s 24; Elise Kellond-Knight’s only 28. Even their goalkeeper, Lydia Williams, is only 31. Almost every regular player for Australia can be expected to improve between now and the next World Cup, wherever that’s held, and per every voice that’s come from the Football Federation Australia, they intend to hold that World Cup at home.
Today was a disappointment, and for some people, that term is synonymous with setback. But whether the end of their 2019 World Cup truly leaves Australia in a worse place is up to the Matildas. On one track, they can go down the path of the 2011’s France, whose generation of Lyon-bred talent raised expectations only to, eight years on, struggle for their true breakthrough. Or, they can learn lessons from that wave of talent, as well as the lessons of their three weeks’ struggle, and decide to move forward.
There are valuable lessons in what Australia has gone through over the last six months, from the turmoil of replacing a coach, to peaking too early in a cycle, to managing injuries and dealing with an entire country’s hopes. It’s not only reasonable for them to make mistakes their first time through, but in the long run, it might help. Whereas they were of the non-U.S., non-France contenders headed into this competition, with a steady, consistent four years’ growth, they could go into an Australia 2023 as the clear favorites to claim a world title.
They have the talent to do that. For years, now, that’s been beyond doubt. What ultimately undermined them today was their inability to manage the cycle. But with lessons learned and almost no talents phasing out, Australia might, as unlikely as it sounds., have moved closer to their ultimate goals. The reality of pain and disappointment may prove to be the last thing they needed to, sometime down the road, claim their first World Cup.