Matildas’ 2021 captured hope and heartache in a nation. If they can survive, so can we

Sam Kerr has her hands on her knees, her worn-out face turned blank toward the corner flag.

Her Chelsea team-mates pull their exhausted bodies into the penalty area and get ready for the incoming corner – their last chance to equalize against Reading in their last Superliga match for women before the winter break.

Kerr pretends enthusiasm, does not jump convincingly around on her toes and tries to show the energy her side has lacked throughout the game.

But she looks on in despair as the tired corner kick sails well over her head and jumps over to the other side of the pitch.

Sam Kerr plays for Chelsea
Like the rest of Australia, Matilda’s 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 2021-2022 Women’s Super League season, and Kerr – after competing in three simultaneous domestic competitions as well as national team matches over the last few months – is tilting her tired head in her gloved hands.

The individual gesture encapsulated how it feels when Australia crawls towards the end of 2021: battered, tired, demoralized.

In fact, Australian sport has served as a sort of barometer for the country for the past 12 months.

Not only has it offered desperately needed dirt of escapism and distraction amid endless shutdowns – and platforms on which we address broader social issues such as racism, sexual abuse and discrimination – but it has also reminded us how powerful individuals can be when they working. together to achieve something greater than themselves.

Few national teams captured this feeling more than Matilda’s.

Their tumultuous years, filled with doubt and progress alike, seemed to reflect what many of us experienced as our daily lives were reshaped, perhaps forever, by the pandemic.

In fact, Matilda was one of the first national teams in global sports to be affected by the initial outbreak when they were forced to move their Tokyo Olympic qualifiers from Wuhan to Sydney in early 2020.

As the world reckoned with its own capabilities and limitations and quickly sought to carve a path into an unknown and ever-changing pandemic future, the Matilda were also quickly reminded of the difficult months and years ahead.

Their first three matches in 2021 were against Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark: Three losses, 13 conceded goals and only four scored.

These were the first results under the new head coach Tony Gustavsson: Not quite the first impression a new leader wants to make on an iconic team or on an adoring nation.

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

But there was method to the madness. Gustavsson’s mandate has been twofold: To deliver short-term results in major tournaments and at the same time lay out a roadmap for the national team’s future.

Doubts brewed over both as the team recorded a draw against Sweden and a small loss to Japan in their last friendly matches before Tokyo, where they entered the Olympics with one of the worst performance records in any of the competing nations.

But we had faith in them, faith that they were capable of achieving great things against the odds.

And they turned out to be. We watched from our locked home as the Matilda went on a stormy, lively Olympic run that resulted in a historic fourth place finish.

While the Tokyo stadiums stood still and empty, the living rooms of millions of people across Australia were filled with noise and color.

Their breathless, 4-3 come-from-behind defeat of Britain in extra time embodied everything that the Matilda have come to represent for the country over the years: the perseverance, the faith, the “never die” attitude sewn into their iconic jerseys.

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It felt as if the source of hope that the team drew from in Tokyo spilled out of the screens we watched them and flowed into our lives when we needed it most, even if it was just for 90 minutes .

But the halo effect was short-lived. After the euphoric tournament – a testament to the power of football as the conductor of our collective emotions – the team was then thrown back into the reality of the hard work that awaits, after an uninspiring 3-2 loss to Ireland in September in a performance, which Gustavsson himself described as “shit”.

They also had difficulties off the field when they came home to a two-match series against Brazil amid a storm of allegations of a toxic culture in the sport.

True to character, the team stood in solidarity with each other and acknowledged the wound while protecting themselves and the precious thing they have created together.

It was the first time they had been back on Australian soil in over a year, but the team still felt far away.

Their biosafe bubble meant they could not hug friends, family or fans – the comforts of home right out of reach. It was a reminder that even the athletes and sports we use to escape the worries of our lives carry their own doubts and fears, not to mention the growing hopes and expectations of a nation as the World Cup for Women in 2023 approaching.

The team’s return to Sydney and Newcastle to host the world champions USA – their last hit-out before next month’s Asian Cup – drew attention back to the field, but it raised more questions than answers: Matildas’ defense remained crisp and shallow, its midfield inconsistent , its impact force lacks dimension and variation.

But Gustavsson gradually knows that. And after handing out more options and caps to new players since 2007, he can not be accused of not trying to find quick fixes.

January’s Asian Cup will be a test of how much further he has come in the six months since Tokyo; where Australia are likely to see the plan for the side and the style that will host the world’s biggest football tournament in just 18 months.

And yet, while the performance against the United States was overwhelming, both matches attracted record-breaking crowds, with hundreds of fans hanging over fences with jerseys and smartphones just waiting for a glimpse of their idols.

The Matilda committed with joy, being over an hour after the final whistle each time, the value of this team living as much outside the white lines as within them.

Crowd at Matildas against USA
The friendly matches against Brazil and the USA showed that the value of Matildas is as much off the field as it is on it.(Getty Images: Corbis / Steve Christo)

In a few weeks, the Matilda will travel to India for their last major rehearsal by 2023.

There is a sense of déjà vu throughout: Australia is struggling with yet another COVID-19 wave, while domestic and international sports are heading for further disruption and delays.

And just like last time, we will see and support them from a distance: To see in this team of women the kind of faith and unity that we wish Australia itself could embody and embrace; the kind of spirit that this present moment of global crisis demands.

Because if the Matilda can survive the roller coaster of the last 12 months – the fluctuating border restrictions, exhausting cross-continental schedules, stuttering performances on the field, isolating bubbles, media fire storms and an ever-sharpening international spotlight – they still have faith in themselves and what they are capable of achieve together, then we can certainly too.

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