“Cry in the beginning so you can smile at the end.”
They were the impassioned words of one of football’s greatest players, Marta, when her Brazil side were bundled out of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup by the host nation, France.
Staring down the barrel of the broadcast camera after that 2-1 loss, Brazil’s talismanic captain embarked on an emotional speech that captured the sporting world, imploring the young girls of her homeland to carry the flame that her own generation — and the generations of women footballers before her — had lit.
“We have to take the chance,” Marta said, her voice breaking. “It’s about wanting more, training harder, taking better care of yourself. It’s being ready to play 90 minutes plus 30 minutes, or whatever it takes.
“Think about that; appreciate that more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile at the end.”
She may well have been addressing Australian football in those pleas, too.
Just like Brazil, we are a nation undertaking a similar generational rebuild, having recognised that our ‘golden generation’ has only one or two World Cup cycles left to shine.
As Football Australia highlighted in last year’s women’s performance gap report, Australia has an alarming lack of senior squad depth and opportunities for young talent emerging through the national team ranks.
That is, in large part, what drove their hiring of Tony Gustavsson to lead the Matildas through this current cycle, and what the new head coach has regularly cited when it comes to friendlies like this series against Brazil; it is all about the project, the learning, the preparation for the ultimate goal: the 2023 Women’s World Cup on home soil.
As Gustavsson foreshadowed earlier this week, these games are an opportunity for the staff to introduce and acclimatise young, emerging players to international-level football, as well as to tweak and test formations, combinations, and systems of play with embedded stars against some of the best national teams in the world.
“We need depth,” Gustavsson said. “And in order to win something at a tournament, we need to be able to, one: rotate throughout the tournament, but also two: you need to have cover if you have injuries and suspensions.
“We need to make sure we are able to bridge that gap and, as you’ve seen this year, we’ve been trying to balance it in a way we can perform in the Olympics but at the same time also bring new players in.”
And that is exactly what this series delivered. Tuesday night’s game was particularly testing as Brazil fielded their strongest available line-up, which included Marta as well as the 30-year old, 110-cap striker Debinha, both of whom only made substitute appearances in the first match.
Without them, Brazil had looked rudderless; lacking central, metronomic players around whom their younger, less experienced side could gravitate. But with their inclusion on Tuesday night, that changed. “It was a different team,” Gustavsson said after the thrilling 2-2 draw, Marta delivering the assist for the first goal while Debinha scored the equaliser.
It was not just technical skill that players like these offered – it was confidence. It was belief. It was hope. From the first to the final whistle, Marta scrapped and fought and danced her way across the pitch. You didn’t even have to watch the game to know when she was on the ball; all you needed to do was listen to the 12,000-plus fans in the stadium who audibly hummed with anticipation whenever she was near it.
Feeding off the energy of these two veterans, as well as their own joyous fans, Brazil’s young side grew into the second friendly like a flower in sunlight. By half-time, they’d recorded more than twice as many shots as the Matildas, they’d dominated possession, and had created more convincing chances in the final third. They aggressively pressed Australia’s midfield, lured players out of position to exploit vulnerable spaces, and were largely unlucky not to score at least twice more were it not for the inside-face of a post and a missed penalty opportunity after Marta was tripped in the box.
That is not to say the Matildas wilted entirely, though. In fact, Australia scored one of their best team goals in recent years just before the hour; a cool, choreographed series of passes that spanned almost the entire pitch starting with the impressive substitute Clare Wheeler before finishing with captain Sam Kerr, who is now just one goal away from equalling Tim Cahill’s national record of 50.
However, Australia’s infamous defensive frailties were on display once again in the final half hour. Turnovers, poor passes, miscommunication, and lapses in concentration during set-pieces allowed Brazil to capitalise on Australia’s weaknesses and ensure that the hosts would not end the series with a clean sweep, nor a clean sheet, meaning Gustavsson’s win-draw-loss record remains noticeably lop-sided.
Results aside, though, what this series demonstrated was the larger vision Gustavsson and FA have for the Matildas – one that extends far beyond the head coach’s tenure. Since taking over in January, Gustavsson has given debuts to twelve players – the most since 2006/07, when players like Clare Polkinghorne, Kyah Simon, Tameka Yallop and Elise Kellond-Knight were handed their first caps. Two debuts came against Brazil on Saturday alone in Remy Siemsen and Bryleeh Henry, while more significant minutes were given to recent debutants Clare Wheeler, Angie Beard, and Courtney Nevin on Tuesday.
Add to the mix teen stars Mary Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross – both of whom were stand-outs across this series and have played their way into regular starting spots – as well as goalkeeper Teagan Micah, absent for this series but sparkling in Tokyo, and there can be no doubt that Football Australia are, as much as they can in the circumstances, acting on Marta’s desperate call – even if it wasn’t intended for them.
There are, naturally, going to be growing pains that come with longer-term projects like this. On the smaller scale, using friendlies to blood new players and experiment with new systems may result in some questionable performances and eye-watering score-lines, as we saw before the Tokyo Olympics, but the ultimate validation of the process rests in how the Matildas perform when it matters. Their historic fourth-placed finish in Tokyo was, arguably, the first illustration of that.
And on the larger scale, just as Brazil’s national team has slumped in recent years as they have reckoned with their own past failures to ensure a smoother system of youth development, so too will Australia reach its own turbulent period once the current ‘golden generation’ follows Formiga, Cristiane and, eventually, Marta, into retirement. In that sense, Brazil are a glimpse into Australia’s future; they are what happens when you do not plan for tomorrow today.
What ties these two parallel narratives together is precisely what Marta espoused that night in 2019. While difficulty and doubt may hang over the Matildas now, it is only over time that the benefit of the current moment will be realised. Or, as Marta so prophetically put it: to cry in the beginning so we can smile at the end.