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The Matilda Effect: The New 99ers?

Something is happening across the Tasman.

The Australian Women’s National Team (the Matildas), are currently taking Australia, and the rest of the world, by storm.

We’re used to women’s football being in the news because of pay disputes, or Hope Solo calling Sweden cowards, or because it’s the United States. Otherwise, exposure for international women’s football is fairly minimal unless you are American. That is because the US Women’s National Team of 1999 put women’s football on the proverbial map when they won their home World Cup and were universally adored. The stars of that team included Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and of course, Mia Hamm, who is still considered the best female player of all time alongside Marta from Brazil. The 99ers, as they are collectively known, were incredible influencers who deserve unending gratitude for what they did for the women’s game.

The lasting effect of their efforts has been that for the last twenty years or so, women’s football has been very US-centric. No one has really been able to get close to the quality that the American programme continually turns out. Germany and Japan can go toe to toe, but in terms of “soccer culture” and development systems, for the most part the US have been in a league of their own.

Until recently.

The US lost their own She Believes cup and the Tournament of Nations. The latter was won by the new stars of the women’s football universe, a team with their own striker phenomenon and their own set of adoring fans: the Matildas.

Up until Tameka Butt’s well-taken goal led them to victory on July 27th of this year, the Australians had never beaten the USA. They have now. They also beat Japan and Brazil on the way to lifting the trophy. This week they proved it wasn’t a fluke, beating Brazil (including Marta) twice in the space of five days. Those last two matches were played in front of sell-out crowds. Their captain Lisa De Vanna said that it brought a tear to her eye and their star striker, Sam Kerr, described it as something she will “never forget”.

Sam Kerr has been central to the Matilda’s recent success. She continually scores goals and crucially, she scores them in big moments. Her current form began in the American professional league the NWSL, with her club Sky Blue F.C. The New Jersey-based side has benefitted from Kerr’s incredible ability to score the winner-she recently scored four goals to secure a 5-4 win. That was one of multiple occasions in which she netted the winner, often in the game’s dying moments.

Going into the Tournament of Nations, followers of the NWSL were interested to see if her form would carry over. It did. Not only did Sam Kerr score goals for the Matildas in that tournament, she created them. She is fast, technical, clinical, and very, very creative. She has become the face of the Matildas in the same way Mia Hamm did for the USWNT in 1999.

There are further comparisons that can be drawn between the 99ers and the Matildas that perhaps help to illustrate just what it is that the Australian team are achieving right now. Like that famed American team, they have inspired an unbelievable increase in support. The players were shocked when their match in Penrith sold out because until this point, they haven’t had support like that at home. Now, the FFA has made a point of having the same advertising and social media presence as they do for the Socceroos for the same length of time before games. There will be another home series for the team before the end of this year. They are playing home games, in front of home crowds, and they are getting the attention they have earned.

Like the 1999 US team, they have caught the media’s attention and brought women’s football to the forefront of sporting discussion. Right now, the general consensus of the Australian media is that the Matildas are the best team in Australia right now, male or female, for any code. They are being talked about as such. They are being talked about as athletes, in terms of their results and their play. For women athletes, that is an achievement that can not be overlooked. The Matildas have succeeded in directing everyone’s attention exactly where it should be for a team of their calibre: the football.

The next FIFA Women’s World Cup is in France in 2019. The Matildas are making a strong case that they should be considered amongst the favourites for that tournament. Right now, they are beating top 5 nations consistently, where previous iterations of the team have struggled to back up performances. Their “golden generation” is full of world class and incredibly talented players. The Matildas absolutely have what it takes to win a World Cup, and it’s a good thing for the women’s game that there is now a new name in the mix.

What the Matildas have achieved in Australia puts them right up there with the 99ers in terms of the legacy they could have. They are in many ways doing what the Americans managed to do back in 1999: inspiring a generation, changing the discussion on the women’s game, and most importantly, playing some damn good football.

Categories: Women's kōrero

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Helena Wiseman

A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).

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