Just over a year after taking over as coach of Australia, Alen Stajcic has transformed the Matildas into a team of world beaters with high hopes at the Women’s World Cup.
The former Sydney FC W-League coach stepped in after his predecessor Hesterine de Reus was sacked in April 2014 following a player revolt.
The 41-year-old managed to guide Australia to theAsian Cup final just a month later, where they lost 1-0 to Japan.
Now better-prepared, Stajcic’s young team face that same Japanese team in the last eight in Edmonton on Saturday looking to keep their epic journey alive.
The Matildas became the first Australian men’s or women’s team to win a knockout game at a World Cup by beating 2007 runners-up Brazil 1-0.
Their progress in Canada has been impressive after emerging from the difficult Group D which included the United States, Sweden and Nigeria.
They have also had to juggle a hectic travel schedule — criss-crossing thousands of kilometres from Winnipeg to Edmonton to Moncton and back again to Edmonton.
“We believe we can (go all the way) and we have since the start of the tournament,” said forward Sam Kerr, who has started all four of their games.
“Obviously beating Brazil, one of the best teams in the world, gives you massive self belief and brings us closer as a family,” she added.
– Bit of revenge –
Japan are the only team to have won all their games, but midfielder Emily van Egmond believes the Australians can break though for a first win against the fourth-ranked champions since 2010.
“We’ve had a great preparation since the 12th of January,” she said.
“We’ve been together pretty much since then, working hard and working towards this tournament.
“There’s no better preparation that I’ve been a part of with the Matildas, it’s been great.
“They’re going to be just as up for it as we are but we’re full of confidence heading into this game. We lost the final (in the Asian Cup) and we’re looking for a bit of revenge.”
The Matildas have the benefit of an extra two days to prepare for the clash, as Japan beat the Netherlands 2-1 on Tuesday.
Midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight, the player of the match in their last two games, said they were stunned by the reaction after a victory which set social media alight.
“We’ve probably always slipped under the radar a little bit with women’s football but it’s great to have that feeling that the country’s really supporting us.
– Refocus –
“To be on the front page of the newspapers, be on the newsreel highlights, it’s a real sense of accomplishment and I’m proud of the girls for puttingfootball on the front page.”
Kellond-Knight added: “Our belief is growing.
“You could see in the first game there was a few nerves but as the tournament’s gone on the confidence is growing and growing and it’s showing in our performances. I think the best is yet to come.”
Stajcic said the most important thing was to refocus the players.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and think it’s all roses. We’ve still got a long way to go and we’re going to do it.
“With such a young team you just see so much growth and development. They’re 21, 22-year-old kids that just keep growing every day.
“If they keep growing we can beat anyone in the world.”
The success comes less that a year after theFootball Federation Australia secured over half a million dollars in funding from FIFA for a programme to target grassroots women’s football development. – Agence France-Presse