As the Matildas lick their wounds, calls for a coaching review and further investment in the W-League are the first responses to Australia’s round-of-16 exit at the World Cup.
Ante Milicic’s side was square with Norway at the end of extra time but was dumped out of France after a penalty shootout at Nice, losing 1-1 (4-1).
The team had been labelled Australia’s best ever squad at a World Cup, and publicly set their sights on a place in the last four; pushing on from their past three results where the Matildas had reached the last eight.
Instead, the Sam Kerr-led team recorded its worst result at the tournament in 16 years.
It was a result that many saw coming given the less-than-ideal lead up to the tournament.
Long-serving coach Alen Stajcic’s sacking five months ago saw the team plunged into controversy.
Football Federation Australia ousted the coach for overseeing a “toxic culture” within the team and appointed Ante Milicic.
While different views are held as to whether Stajcic should have gone, and effusive apologies have since been issued over comments made at the time, there’s consensus FFA bungled the termination.
The Matildas have each maintained they benefited from the coaching switch, and threw themselves into life under Milicic.
“The players bought in … deeply. That’s why they’re so cut,” Matildas legend Heather Garriock said on Optus Sport.
Garriock said that didn’t mean Milicic should be spared criticism.
“Let’s congratulate his bravery. He’s come into a really bad situation and he’s been brave to come in and try and implement his philosophy on the players,” she said.
I don’t think he (Milicic) should’ve come in and changed the whole philosophy from a playing style point of view because you saw the girls were rattled.
“People need to be held accountable because this team should’ve been in a World Cup final.”
Improvements and changes to the W-League seem pivotal with the loss.
Of the 10 teams eliminated from the tournament so far, just one is European, underpinning the need for investment to keep up with those leading leagues.
As previously reported by AAP, W-League chiefs are meeting their American counterparts this month to look at possible tie-ups that could enhance both competitions.
Long-serving Matilda Joey Peters called for a major review, saying “we’ll have to revisit the mess that happened with the change of coach” but saw the review as a “big opportunity”.
“We realise that we need a lot of improvements. W-League, yes. The environments for the players, yes. Coaching I think as well,” she said.
“We’re going to get left behind unless we take a good, serious look at ourselves.”
While those priorities are front of mind for the game’s leaders, the Matildas themselves are consoling themselves.
“The next couple of days we’ll probably relax a bit and try and get over the emotions,” Tameka Yallop said.
“Accept them and get over them. When we get back into camp again we’ll review the World Cup and learn from it what we can and try and move forward.”
One player spared the brickbats for now is skipper Sam Kerr, whose spot-kick howler set the tone for the disastrous penalty shootout.
Despite that her teammates rallied around to support her in the hours after the disappointing exit.
Kerr looked prepared and focused as she stepped up to the kick, aiming to cancel out Caroline Graham Hansen’s opener. However, she speared her effort wide, immediately spinning and retreating from the contest.
“What can you do?” Kerr said afterwards. “I’ve been trusted to take it, and I was confident in taking it, and I just skewed it.
“The girls have already gotten around me. I feel like I let the team down, but they’ve been quick to cut that out. I’ll grow from this and become a stronger person mentally.”
The Matildas lost to Brazil in similar fashion at the 2016 Olympics. Then, it was Alanna Kennedy to suffer the heartbreak of missing the key penalty.
On Sunday morning, Kennedy’s dismissal in extra time halted the Matildas’ momentum – in fact they were lucky to even get to the shootout.
The defender whacked the refereeing standards while telling Optus Sport of her devastation, saying “to be out so early with such a good team, we’re all just upset and heartbroken”.
“I’m not surprised (by the red card). The refereeing has been questionable the whole tournament,” she said.
“There needs to be more clarity for everyone. It’s the way it goes. You have to play the whistle.”
Kerr said she didn’t want to blame the referee, instead looking inward.
“Any time you don’t win the World Cup, you’ve underachieved. We’re obviously really, really disappointed and feel like we’ve let ourselves down,” she said.
“We felt really confident in our team … always stuck together and it sucks to go out on a penalty shootout.”
She reached out to the many Matildas fans, old and new, travelling and at home, to thank them for their support.
“We feel so lucky that we have so many fans that want to follow us around the world,” she said.
“To everyone at home who has been getting up early and watching us, sending messages through, it’s been unreal. Hopefully, although we lost tonight, we did you proud.”