There’s a familiar feeling that now accompanies the end of a major tournament for the Matildas.
It’s a cocktail of emotions that seems to follow a team that is beloved across the board in Australia and well respected on the world stage, but which habitually finds itself painfully outside the prizes at such events.
There’s pride, of course.
Even in their defeat to the USWNT in the bronze medal match in Tokyo, the Matildas found something within themselves to drag two goals back and make turn a rout into a sticky 4-3.
But there’s an emptiness that comes with another missed opportunity, and a frustration that there is still nothing to show for a generation of sustained promise.
And then there’s the nagging fear that for all that promise, there is just something lacking from this team that keeps it from truly reaching football’s elite.
These Olympic Games somehow enhanced those fears, completely alleviated them and then rendered them immaterial all at the same time.
The heavy loss to the United States complicated the sense that under Tony Gustavsson, Australia had turned a corner. They outlasted and outfought Great Britain in the quarter-final before genuinely outplaying Sweden in the semi, but the other side of the coin was on display against the US.
The Matildas couldn’t play through the American press, so either resorted to long balls pumped up to Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr, or simply lost possession and handed a chance to the opposition.
At times the Matildas were overrun by the team that has been the best in the world for at least a decade. They conceded four, but could easily have conceded a few more. There was to be no breakthrough medal this time.
So then why is the sentiment around the team so positive? Why is it so easy to ignore the defensive concerns and look ahead to the 2023 World Cup with genuine optimism?
Well, perhaps the more pertinent question is why shouldn’t it be? There was far too much good to be taken from this tournament for the Matildas to concern themselves with what was lost.
This is a football team that does not need to play well to score goals. That is a rare gift, and about as good a starting position as any coach could hope for.
With Kerr as a spearhead, Foord working in combination and the likes of Hayley Raso and Kyah Simon buzzing around there are multiple avenues to goal.
On the odd occasion the Matildas decided to forgo trying the futility of navigating the American press and went long, they invariably threatened. Against Sweden, they were able to probe and control and were equally adept.
Australia’s biggest problem at the Olympics was defensive cohesiveness, which generally manifested as calamitous defensive errors.
This can be fixed. This is where it’s worth remembering how cobbled-together this campaign was from Gustavsson — he’s had next to no time with the squad, and conducted many of his early sessions via Zoom with his players scattered around the world and unable to convene.
Generally speaking, any team under a new coach would do things the other way around — the defence would be locked down and then, over time, the ability to score would come later. The Matildas are doing things in reverse, but will be hopeful they’ve got the hardest bit boxed off already.
Then there is Generation Next, headlined by Mary Fowler whose introduction to international football was incredibly encouraging and frustratingly brief.
Fowler came on late against the USA alongside Courtney Nevin and Kyra Cooney-Cross, who were both born within three days of each other in February of 2002. Ellie Carpenter, who missed the bronze medal match, is just 21.
All of which makes logical sense, but the magic of the Matildas has always been more intangible than that.
There’s a joy in watching them, a self-belief that is contagious. Their likability is prefaced on humility and heart, and is far greater than results.
With this team, the way we feel when watching them play is far more important than the way we feel when it’s over. It’s why, no matter what happens, we just can’t wait to see them in action again.