World Cup bronze medal slips through exhausted Matildas fingers

21 August 2023

The Matildas two nil loss to Sweden in the third-place playoff match in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, played at Brisbane Stadium, on Saturday 19 August, came not only as a disappointment, but also a surprise, to supporters of the Australian women’s football team.

Although the Matildas enjoyed their best ever World Cup tournament in 2023, in being placed fourth, many believed the team had a better an average chance of winning the playoff game for the 2023 bronze medal.

If perhaps Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson had not been so intent on maintaining “continuity”, by refusing to change the team’s line-up throughout most of the World Cup, winning third place was indeed a distinct possibility. Yet of the twenty-three players in the full Matildas squad, only thirteen spent significant time on the field. And that might have been twelve, had Sam Kerr, the Matildas’ captain, not been sidelined for much of the competition with an injury. Of the remaining ten players in the Matildas squad, only a handful saw game minutes.

Samantha Lewis, football writer for ABC Sport, underlined the point, at half time during Saturday’s match, when the Blågult, Sweden’s women’s football team, were leading the game one nil:

The Matildas look tired. Not just physically but mentally: their passes have been off, their decisions half-a-second too slow, their challenges late and clumsy.

It’s a cliche, but Sweden look like they want this more, and the extra day of rest they’ve had over Australia is noticeable in terms of their reaction times and pressing speed.

Tony Gustavsson has been criticised towards the pointy-end of this tournament for not using his bench enough and relying on fatigued players to get the job done, but this feels like a game where he really needs to trust the fresh legs available to him if they want to get back into this and go home with a rose-gold medal.

While Sweden played their semi-final match a day earlier than Australia, I doubt the extra twenty-four hours rest alone made them the better team in Brisbane. Even though, like Australia, they did not change their semi-final line-up, either.

Gustavsson seems to have forgotten winning tournaments on the scale of a World Cup are a team effort. He should have drawn more from the wider Matildas’ squad, rather than constantly relying on the same core players. Playing six international games — from the first group stage match, to the third-place playoff — over the course of four weeks, with virtually no substitutions, is a big ask for any team, no matter how good. Gustavsson was therefore extremely fortunate there were no serious injuries (with the exception of Kerr) forcing him to ditch the team continuity he craved.

I’m surprised though someone as seasoned as Gustavsson didn’t recognise the need to rest players, and bring some “new legs”, to quote Samantha Lewis, onto the field. And not just prior to the third-place playoff either, but throughout the competition. Being sidelined, and deprived of the opportunity to shine, must have come as a blow to those in the Matildas’ squad who sat out the entire World Cup on the reserves bench.

Not only was the thinking unfortunate, but the “continuity policy” also represented, I think, a missed opportunity. Because great things could have come to pass.

And let’s not forget the home-field advantage, something the Matildas enjoyed as tournament co-hosts, and something that can work in favour of Australian athletes. The 2000 Sydney Olympics are an example, where Australia won a record fifty-eight medals, the nation’s best showing at a Summer Olympics to date.

A rejuvenated Matildas’ team, by way of a few substitutions, and with their supporters right there beside them, might have made all the difference on Saturday night.