The Matildas have capped a memorable 12 months by qualifying for their first Olympic Games since 2004.
Australia’s women’s football team made it four wins from four at their Olympic qualifying tournament in Japan on Monday, booking their spot at this year’s Rio de Janeiro showpiece with a 2-1 success over DPR Korea.
The result earns Australia dose of revenge over North Korea, who eliminated the Matildas from the race for the past two Games in London and Beijing.
Australia coach Alen Stajcic made two changes to the side which defeated South Korea on Friday with co-captain Lisa De Vanna surprisingly left on the bench, while Caitlin Foord and Michelle Heyman started.
The pair combined for a crucial early goal on 18 minutes as Foord made a typically pacy run down the flank, before pulling the ball back for striker Heyman to slot home from inside the penalty box.
The match was tempestuous at time and North Korea’s Kim Nam Hui was lucky not to see red after lashing out at Chloe Logarzo, while Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams avoided injury despite Ra Un Sim diving in recklessly with studs showing.
Perhaps the key moment of the match came from Williams who made a remarkable block on the goal-line as Kim Yun Mi fired in a close-range volley 10 minutes into the second half.
North Korea’s play became less cohesive as their desperation grew and Katrina Gorry and Foord had chances to extend the advantage.
That profligacy proved costly as substitute Kim Su Gyong fired in a perfect finish with 12 minutes remaining to set up a nervous finish.
However, parity only lasted for five minutes as Gorry fired home an inch-perfect shot from 15 metres to seal victory.
Previous qualifying results
The Matildas opened the tournament with a 3-1 win over World Cup semi-finalists Japan last week.
A 9-0 thumping of Vietnam – inspired by a Kyah Simon hat-trick – followed and a 2-0 success against South Korea left them needing just a point from Monday’s encounter.
Since women’s football was introduced to the Olympics in 1996, Australia have qualified just twice.
They disappointed in front of their home fans at Sydney 2000, finishing seventh of a possible eight nations and not winning a match.
And they couldn’t get past the quarter-finals – when 10 countries were involved – in Athens four years later.
Hopes will be much higher for the Matildas in Brazil, though, given their meteoric rise over the last year.
A game-changing 12 months
Australia defied the odds to progress from Group D at last year’s Women’s World Cup after a first-up 3-1 loss to world No.1 USA.
A shock last-16 win over Brazil was seen as a significant moment of progress.
Brazil, who had not conceded in the tournament, and boasted the best female player of all-time, Marta, were big favourites.
But the Matildas, kept in the game by goalkeeper Lydia Williams, snatched an unlikely victory through Kyah Simon’s instinctive 80th-minute finish.
Their run ended in the quarter-finals, against Japan, but equally momentous – if not moreso – was the Matildas’ victory in an ugly pay dispute.
Significant media coverage was given to the fact they were paid below minimum wage during the World Cup run and in September 2015, they took the significant step of a boycott.
The Matildas refused to visit the US to play the world champions, making them the first national sporting team to strike.
It was a bold and brave decision.
FFA CEO David Gallop publicly fumed, while columnists referred to them as the ‘poor me Matildas’.
But just two months later, the FFA and Professional Footballers Australia announced a new pay deal with substantial increases.
And now they’ve done what the men couldn’t – qualify for the Olympics.
With a very young team, the 2019 World Cup is one the Matildas will be seriously expected to challenge for.
But first things first. There’s a gold medal to be won.