Matildas’ 2021 captured the hopes and pain of a nation. If they can survive, so can we

Sam Kerr’s hands are on his knees, his gaunt face turned blank toward the flag in the corner.

Her Chelsea teammates drag their exhausted bodies into the penalty area, preparing for the incoming corner, their last chance to equalize against Reading in their final Women’s Super League game before winter break.

Kerr feigns enthusiasm, tiptoeing unconvincingly, trying to display the energy that has been lacking at his side throughout the game.

But he watches sadly as the tired corner kick passes over his head and bounces to the other side of the field.

Like the rest of Australia, Matildas captain Sam Kerr has stumbled towards the end of 2021.(Getty Images: PA Images / Andrew Matthews)

Moments later, the full-time whistle blows. It’s Chelsea’s first loss in the 2021-22 Women’s Super League season, and Kerr, having competed in three simultaneous domestic competitions as well as national team friendlies in recent months, leans her tired head into her gloved hands.

That single gesture sums up how she feels as Australia crawls towards the end of 2021: battered, fatigued, demoralized.

In fact, Australian sport has acted as something of a barometer for the country’s past 12 months.

Not only has it offered desperately needed bits of escapism and distraction amid never-ending roadblocks, and platforms where we tackle broader societal issues like racism, sexual abuse, and discrimination, it has also reminded us of how powerful social media can be. individuals when they work. together to achieve something greater than themselves.

Few teams captured this sentiment more than the Matildas.

His tumultuous year, filled with doubt and progress in equal measure, seemed to reflect what many of us experienced when our daily lives were reshaped, perhaps forever, by the pandemic.

In fact, the Matildas were one of the first national teams in world sport to be affected by the original outbreak, as they were forced to move their Tokyo Olympic qualifiers from Wuhan to Sydney in early 2020.

As the world relied on its own capabilities and limitations, trying to quickly work its way into an unknown and ever-changing pandemic future, the Matildas were also quick to recall the difficult months and years ahead.

Their first three games of 2021 were against Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark: three defeats, 13 goals conceded and only four scored.

These were the first results under new coach Tony Gustavsson: It’s not the first impression a new leader wants to make on an iconic team or a nation that adores him.

Matildas v Netherlands
The Matildas were heavily defeated by Germany and the Netherlands, left, in their first two games of 2021.(Getty Images: ANP Sport)

But there was a method to madness. Gustavsson’s tenure has been twofold: delivering short-term results in major tournaments and, at the same time, charting a roadmap for the future of the national team.

Doubts arose about both when the team recorded a draw against Sweden and a small loss to Japan in their last friendlies before Tokyo, entering the Olympics with one of the worst preparation records of any of the competing nations.

But we had faith in them, faith that they were capable of great things through thick and thin.

And so they proved to be. We watched from our locked houses as the Matildas embarked on a violent and energetic Olympic race that resulted in a historic fourth place finish.

While Tokyo’s stadiums remained silent and empty, the living rooms of millions of people in Australia were filled with noise and color.

Their breathless, 4-3 loss behind Britain in overtime embodied everything the Matildas have come to represent for the country over the years: perseverance, faith, the “never say die” attitude. which is stitched. on their iconic t-shirts.

Charging

It felt like the source of hope the team drew inspiration from in Tokyo spilled from the screens we watched them on, flooding our lives when we needed it most, even if only for 90 minutes.

But the halo effect was short-lived. After that euphoric tournament, a testament to the power of football as the driver of our collective emotions, the team was once again immersed in the reality of the hard work ahead of them after a boring 3-2 loss to the Republic of Ireland in September. in a performance that Gustavsson himself described as “shit.”

They also faced difficulties off the field, coming home for a two-game series against Brazil amid a storm of accusations about a toxic culture in the sport.

True to their character, the team stood in solidarity with one another, acknowledging the pain as they protected themselves and the preciousness they had created together.

It was the first time they had returned to Australian soil in over a year, but the team still felt a long way off.

Their biosecurity bubble meant they couldn’t hug friends, family, or fans – the comforts of home just out of reach. It was a reminder that even the athletes and sports we use to escape the anxieties in our lives carry their own doubts and fears, not to mention the growing hopes and expectations of a nation as the 2023 Women’s World Cup approaches.

The team’s return to Sydney and Newcastle to face world champions the United States, their last hit out before next month’s Asian Cup, returned attention to the field, but raised more questions than answers: The Matildas defense was kept fragile and superficial. , his inconsistent midfield, his striking force lacks dimension and variety.

But Gustavsson already knows. And having provided more opportunities and caps to new players since 2007, he cannot be accused of not trying to find quick fixes.

The Asian Cup in January will be a test of how far he has come in the six months since Tokyo; where Australia will likely see the blueprint for the team and style that will host the world’s largest soccer tournament in just 18 months.

And yet, while the performances against the US were disappointing, both games drew record crowds, with hundreds of fans hanging over fences in jerseys and smartphones, waiting to see their idols.

The Matildas cheerfully complied, holding onto more than an hour after the final whistle each time, the value of this team living both outside the white lines and within them.

Crowd at Matildas v USA
The friendlies against Brazil and the United States showed that the Matildas’ value is as much off the field as it is on it.(Getty Images: Corbis / Steve Christo)

In a few weeks, the Matildas head to India for their last dress rehearsal of the main competition before 2023.

There is a sense of déjà vu in all of this: Australia grapples with another wave of COVID-19 as national and international sport head towards further disruptions and delays.

And, just like last time, we will watch and support them from afar: seeing in this team of women the kind of belief and togetherness that we wish Australia herself could embody and embrace; the kind of spirit that this current moment of world crisis requires.

Because, if the Matildas can survive the rollercoaster of the last 12 months – fluctuating border restrictions, grueling schedules between continents, stuttering performances in the field, isolating bubbles, media firestorms, and a media center. increasingly acute international attention), they still have faith in themselves and what they are capable of achieving together, then surely we too.

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