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Matildas reckon with their past while celebrating their future in Asian Cup win over Philippines

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Courtney Nevin squints into the harsh Mumbai sun, turning the sticky ball over in her hands. Matildas teammate Remy Siemsen scuttles in front of a defender as she makes a move towards the sideline, her body shaped like a cupped hand to receive the throw-in.

But Nevin’s throw is just too high. Siemsen hurriedly springs into the air, the ball skimming off her head and looping over the pack before finally falling to the feet of a Philippines player.

The young striker immediately spins and begins the press. She’s quickly joined by midfielder Mary Fowler, who helps Siemsen squeeze the opposition defenders into a tired, panicked clearance.

Remy Siemsen (left), Mary Fowler (right) and Cortnee Vine (centre) are all at the start of their Matildas journeys, but their performance on Monday showed they’re not just making up the numbers.(Getty: Thananuwat Srirasant)

The pass is intercepted by Kyra Cooney-Cross, and the field comes alive again. The dark green turf is criss-crossed with streaks of yellow and white as the players buzz around, spaces opening and closing, opportunities appearing and disappearing within seconds.

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With the ball at her feet, Cooney-Cross drives past two Philippine defenders and into the penalty area.

Winger Cortnee Vine is on a parallel line on the opposite side of the field, wrestling her defender while charging towards goal. Holly McNamara is stationed near the top corner of the 18-yard box, ready for the recycled cut-back. Fowler slices in-field and makes for the top of the zone, her shoulders and hips poised for a first-time strike.

All these possible futures are laid out in an instant; all these potential paths forward drawn in the air.

But none of them eventuate. Cooney-Cross is quickly shadowed by a Philippine defender, who forces the young Matilda into a speculative cross that drifts out of play.

Matildas player
Previously singled out as a once-in-a-generation player, Kyra Cooney-Cross is now one of several teenagers capable of stepping into the shoes of more senior Matildas.(Getty: Mark Kolbe)

It’s the 81st minute of Australia’s second group game of the Asian Cup. The tournament favourites are leading 3-0. On the surface, this passage of play is unremarkable, fading off into the many other sequences the Matildas have failed to capitalise on throughout the match.

In hindsight, though, this moment was a pivot-point: an in-between space where the past and the future collided.

The build-up to this match was deeply focused on the Matildas’ history: not just their more immediate form and squad rotations over the past year, but stretching even further back; a return to the past triggered by the return of former head coach Alen Stajcic to the conversation.

Alen Stajcic and Chloe Logarzo wear Matildas scarves as they stand on the terraces of Penrith Stadium with the field behind them
Former Australia boss Alen Stajcic helped develop several core Matildas players including Chloe Logarzo (right). He’s now taking many of those same development lessons to his job with the Philippines.(AAP: Brendan Esposito)

Now in charge of the Philippines, it was the easiest, and therefore loudest, talking point: would Stajcic’s familiarity with the players be a help or a hindrance? How far had the team really progressed since his contentious sacking in 2019? Were the players still haunted by that difficult period? Would they ever again reach the heights he helped them climb to over his five-year tenure?

Indeed, this is a side that still has flecks of Stajcic about it. He oversaw the development of many of its now-core players, after all, including captain Sam Kerr. He handed out key debuts to players like Mary Fowler and Ellie Carpenter. And he provided the Matildas with a structural approach to football that embraced systems and tactics over sheer physicality and athleticism.

But at the same time, Stajcic was part of a wider problem the Matildas are now rapidly trying to solve: namely, who comes next.

In the year that Gustavsson has been head coach of Australia, he’s handed out 14 debuts, the same amount as the previous five years under Stajcic. Five of those players – with fewer than 40 caps between them – were on the field in the final 10minutes of the Philippines match on Monday.

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Meanwhile, the players they replaced – Kerr, Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord, Tameka Yallop and Kyah Simon – share over 500, highlighting the longer-term consequences of these seemingly small moments of neglect over the past decade.

But just as this final 10-minute spell pointed to the Matildas’ past, it also pointed towards its future.

Five minutes after the aforementioned failed passage, these same young players combined to score Australia’s fourth goal and secure passage through to the quarter-finals.

And it happened in almost the same kind of way as their first attempt: Nevin begins play down the left, Vine sprints down the right towards the six-yard box, Siemsen ghosts into the area to pull players out of position, Fowler drifts towards the semi-circle; all of them moving in sync, the memory of dozens of choreographed training sessions laying out their futures for them.

This time, it works. The ball finds Fowler where she’s meant to be, and the teenager does not miss.

Persistence, practice, and opportunity: all three aligning in this one passage, this one symbolic 10-minute period.

But Australia wasn’t the only side that showed glimpses of the next 10 years in a 10-minute spell on Monday, as the Philippines’ opening stanza also took many fans – and, arguably, many Matildas – by surprise.

Asian Cup players
Philippines striker Chandler McDaniel (left) capitalised on Australia’s well-known defensive weaknesses to register the first major chance of the game.(Getty: Thananuwat Sririsant)

The 64th-ranked side almost scored the game’s first goal just after the fifth minute, when winger Sarina Bolden exploited the space left behind by Catley, feeding speedy striker Chandler McDaniel, who was clean through on goal. Her shot – the first of the match – fizzed wide of the far post, while Bolden registered the game’s second shot on target as the 10th minute ticked over.

But it was in defence where the Philippines were most impressive. They barricaded themselves in front of their own goal to buffer Australia’s set pieces; they out-muscled and out-jumped many of the Matildas’ strongest, tallest players on corners and crosses; their lines remained organised and their press rehearsed. All this while missing some of their better players, including their first and second-choice goalkeepers, through injury and positive COVID-19 tests.

Overall, these two 10-minute spells – the opening and the closing moments – were perhaps the most revealing of where these two countries sit in their life-cycles: one is building their first generation of stars while the other is ushering in their next.

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Fifteen of the Philippines’ 23 squad players had 10 caps or fewer coming into the Asian Cup. The majority had been scouted and plucked from the US college system or the Philippines’ domestic league, meaning few had experienced fully professional football before.

The Matildas, meanwhile, are overflowing with full-time athletes, and came into this tournament as one of the most experienced sides, with 10 squad members having 80 caps or more.

As Stajcic himself said afterwards, this match wasn’t just an illustration of where each team is at now. It also spoke to where these two teams have come from and, perhaps more importantly, where they’re going.

“This Matildas team was put together over 10 or 12 years, not 10 or 12 minutes,” he said.

“It didn’t just happen overnight: there were institutes, there were player development systems, player identification systems; there are lots of things in place to find these players and train these players and prepare these players.

“And that takes ten years, it doesn’t take ten minutes. Any country that wants to get to that level, if they think a magic wand can come over the team and fix any issue in ten minutes, they’re on another planet.

“It really takes a lot of hard work at grassroots and development systems to be able to find, train, and develop some of the best athletes in your own country. And Australia did a good job of that 10 years ago, and they’re reaping the rewards of this fantastic team that they’ve got.

“But, for us, we spent three months in camp. And for us to bridge that gap so quickly is really a phenomenal feat from this group of players. As I said, I think the country should be immensely proud of what they produced today.”

Asian Cup players
Just as Australia are uncovering their next generation of national team stars, the Philippines are establishing the first of theirs.(Getty: Thananuwat Srirasant)

So just as these two 10-minute periods offered insight into the 10 years that led both teams to this point, they also showed us what the next 10 years for each nation could look like; the possible futures that matches and moments like this can open up, and the new histories these nations can start to write down.

“The players in the squad want to change the game back home,” Stajcic said. 

“They want to be inspirational to the next generation. They’ve spoken about that often. They’re at the forefront now, and we’re on the precipice of being able to do that.

“But there’s a lot of hard work to be done between now and qualifying, but hopefully we can give the Philippines and all the players back home – young boys and girls – some inspiration and hope that they can play in World Cups in the future.”

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