You wouldn’t have seen it had you not already been looking.
Several minutes after the Matildas’ thrilling 3-1 win over Brazil on Saturday night, Alanna Kennedy – who captained the side on the occasion of her 100th match – walked slowly, alone, from one corner of the pitch to the other.
Waiting for her there were bright broadcast lights, a blinking television camera, and a microphone.
She took her time for a reason. Looking up at the dark Sydney sky, Kennedy flapped at her damp cheeks with her hands as she walked.
When she reached the back of the branded hoarding, she wiped her face, adjusted her hairband, and breathed deeply. They were the small gestures of someone pulling themselves out of a tangle of emotions to perform on a very public stage.
And perform she did: Kennedy said all the things you say as a professional athlete following a win – “so proud of the girls’ performance,” “the crowd really brought the energy tonight” – but her glassy eyes betrayed the pressures and challenges the Matildas have faced elsewhere; off-stage, away from the manicured grass and frenzied fans.
Earlier this week, the players arrived home to a storm of questions and suspicions after allegations of a toxic culture were made by former player Lisa De Vanna a fortnight ago.
The team’s collective statement, which acknowledged De Vanna’s experiences while defending the current set-up, received mixed reviews: some reading it as a symbol of protective solidarity, others as a closing-of-ranks dismissal – the latter leading to a torrent of online abuse and harassment.
So that was one layer of pressure. Another was their COVID-enforced biosecurity bubble; a first for an international sports team in Australia.
With some players having not seen their friends and family for almost two years, the Matildas’ nearest and dearest were, despite being in the same building, still forced to keep their distance – barred from interacting with one another beyond loud words and outstretched arms across empty air.
That, for Kennedy, has been one of the most difficult parts of this homecoming: that it hasn’t really felt like a homecoming at all.
“I’m emotional at the moment, having just seen them for the first time in around 15 months,” she said.
“They’re such a huge part of my journey to getting to 100 games. I just love them to pieces.”
Caitlin Foord echoed the sentiment, too.
“The hardest thing today is being here and not being able to see our families,” she said.
“That’s the hardest thing about being on home soil. Besides that, it’s just been so long for all of us, so we’ve just wanted to come here and put on a great show – and block out the outside noise – because we’re here for this team and that’s what we continue to do.”
A third layer of pressure, arguably, was on Tony Gustavsson himself. This was his first time visiting Australia, his first time coaching this iconic team in front of its own fans.
You only get one chance to make a first impression and, coming into these Brazil friendlies off the back of three wins, two draws, and eight losses – including conceding 30 goals – Gustavsson and his team needed to make a good one.
And, like Kennedy in front of that television camera, they did. In front of 15,270 fans, the Matildas extended their win streak over their traditional rivals, who they have now not lost to since July 2016.
Shifting to a more comfortable 4-3-3 formation, Australia began the game on the front foot: pressing aggressively, passing with purpose, moving dynamically. Indeed, were it not for a poorly-angled touch, Sam Kerr could have found herself one-on-one with Brazil’s goalkeeper Leticia within the first 30 seconds.
While the back-four formation allowed both Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter to attack down their respective flanks, which they did vigorously in the opening half, the shift of Tameka Yallop into central midfield was the most promising tactical move of the night.
Yallop had Australia’s first major chance in the eighth minute, ghosting in behind Brazil’s defenders to receive a clever Foord pass, only to be denied by the brave, smothering goalkeeper Leticia, who got a knee to the head for her efforts.
It was wave after wave of Matildas attacks, particularly from set pieces. Brazil defended admirably, with Leticia punching and catching several dangerous aerial balls.
The South Americans’ best chances were in transition, hoping to exploit Australia’s slower central defenders in Kennedy and Polkinghorne, the former of which received a yellow for a tactical trip of an escaping Giovanna Crivelari.
For all the on-ball domination, though – 64 per cent in Australia’s favour just before the half-hour – there were few clear opportunities to show for it. Both sides had registered one shot on target each by this point despite the gulf in possession.
But as the first half wound down, a routine free kick – Catley finding Kerr at the back post, who cleverly nodded back across goal for Clare Polkinghorne – saw Australia finally open the scoring.
Brazil came out with renewed energy thanks to four half-time substitutions and began to create more opportunities, particularly through the lively Adriana, who scored the team’s only goal just after the hour. But it was the introduction of Emily Van Egmond by Gustavsson that turned the game, the free-floating central midfielder clipping in a luxurious cross for Mary Fowler to nod home, as well as scoring herself with a calm side-foot in the 80th minute to make it 3-1.
Setting aside the tumultuous past few weeks, the Matildas delivered one of their most convincing performances for some time.
While the off-field chaos may have consumed them like it did during the 2019 Women’s World Cup after the bungled sacking of former coach Alen Stajcic, the current crop of Matildas appear to have learned to – in Gustavsson’s own words – “embrace pressure” rather than hide from it.
To that end, it was Kennedy’s performance that captured that spirit.
Despite the centurion’s hiccup that led to Brazil’s goal, Gustavsson had nothing but praise for the defender whose night came to symbolise the moment the Matildas currently find themselves in: slowly progressing despite – or, perhaps, because of – the layers of pressure building around them, with a home World Cup just around the corner.
“Maybe [an error] can blind a player’s performance […] but I think you need to look at the other 93 minutes of her performance as well,” Gustavsson said.
“[Kennedy] was one of those that really showed that she can embrace that pressure in that moment. Obviously it was a special game for her, she knew she had the eyes on her – the captain, the 100th game, a lot of family and friends here and, as she said herself, she hasn’t really been pleased with her performances as of late – so in that sense, I do think she took a bit step in the right direction tonight.
“Teams that want to be at the highest level in the world and compete for medals in tournaments need to get used to that interest from the outside and that pressure, no matter what it is – because it could be so many different things. This time, it was this thing; another time, it could be another thing.
“I think getting used to performing under that and actually thrive under it and looking at pressure as a privilege is important. And looking at how the players responded tonight, I’m pleased how they did it.”