Le Journal, 6.12.19

Most people tuning in to Thursday’s match from Montpellier could walk away having enjoyed the most entertaining game of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Brazil scored twice early, Australia responded before halftime and put two more on the board before the final whistle. Even without the context around Australia, Brazil, the changing landscape of the women’s international soccer landscape, or the impact the result would have on the competition’s Group C, the match was a great advertisement for the tournament, seeing our expectation’s pendulum arc back than forth over the span of two hours.

For those of us that live in the women’s soccer space, though, the game was mentally exhausting, precisely because all that context mattered so much. Was Brazil good? Coming into this tournament, we thought one thing – a view that was informed by their nine-straight losses. But up 2-0 after 38 minutes – looking at six points through two games as well as the top of their group – we were being told something else. Did nothing we saw over the years leading into this World Cup matter?

In the strict sense, no. It doesn’t. None of that stuff does. No matter your form in May or the troubles your team faced before kickoff, each 90 minutes allows you to create something new. You’re only a struggling team until you become a good one. And you’re only a good one until you change your course.

That’s what happened just before halftime, today. In the minutes before intermission, Australia looked like a team that was going to have four long years ahead of them. Since their breakthrough at 2017’s Tournament of Nations, the Matildas were cast on the favorites’ tier for this tournament, something that came into doubt over the last year. The pure magnitude of their talent left us in denial, but since July of 2018, Australia had lost six times in 15 games before this tournament, including defeats to Thailand (twice) and Chile. We were asking it about Brazil, but after the Aussies opened the tournament with a loss to Italy, the question had a new target: Was Australia good?

As Thursday’s first half went into extra time, we had one answer: No, they weren’t. At least, they weren’t as good as we thought in those days after their Tournament of Nations triumphs. About to go into halftime down two, Australia was 45 minutes away from becoming the competition’s biggest busts.

But starting with Caitlin Foord’s one-touch goal from close range before halftime, none of that mattered anymore. From that point on, even though they were still down, our tenuous, evolving thoughts about the Matildas become irrelevant. The thoughts of players spending four years explaining themselves suddenly felt very, very premature. The pendulum began to reverse.

What most mattered at that point was the Matildas deciding to change course. While both of their second half goals required a bit of fortune, there are no style points on the final scoresheet. Sometimes, in the aftermath, we forget about that. We focus so much on how teams score their goals, and whether those patterns, efforts, and points of execution are replicable. That’s all important, but what’s also important is that, when a team recognizes they’ve arrived at an all-or-nothing, bottom-line moment, they meet their goals. Doing what you have to do to win is, although hard to quantify, a skill, and in moments like Thursday’s, it’s undoubtedly the most important one.

Australia leveraged that skill with mastery against Brazil, and based on what we’d seen over the last year, they needed to. The Matildas knew they were talented, knew they had every right to see themselves as favorites, but somewhere along the way, they had stopped bringing that to the field. They let themselves get picked off by the Italians on Sunday. They let their backs get pushed against the wall.

Today, however, they let themselves be the Matildas. Whether we believe they truly are back on that elite level, well, that doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that Australia reclaimed their destiny, moving away from a team that’s defined by potential and closer to one that’s ready for their reality. If, after today’s second half, the Matildas believe they’re one of the favorites, they may very well (again) be one.