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Australia and Mary Fowler quietly confident ahead of home World Cup

  • March 16, 2023

There was an air of redemption around the Matildas as they left the field 3-2 victors against Spain in February.

Just months out from a home World Cup, the team showed that it cannot only match one of the best possession-based sides in the world, but also trump them.

After a rocky few years under coach Tony Gustavsson, in a tenure punctured with poor results and unconvincing tactical displays, the Matildas have extinguished any criticism from local media and fan bases.

For Mary Fowler, one of Australia’s rising stars, it’s all been part of a process that’s finally coming good. “It’s actually happened in a really good way. Being back in that time, during a rocky period, you maybe wouldn’t have foreseen it to be how it is now. But the timing has been perfect,” she tells DW.

Three victories and 10 goals against Spain, Jamaica and the Czech Republic saw Australia lift the Cup of Nations, an ideal warm-up competition before the real thing kicks off in June.

“It’s really good momentum going into the World Cup,””Fowler said. We’ve been having a lot of good results lately, but, to be able to do it in a minitournament, it just amplifies that feeling even more.”

Australia's women's football team lifting a trophy in celebration.
The Matildas lifted the Cup of Nations in February.Image: Darren Pateman/AAP/IMAGO

Trust fosters Matildas’ team spirit

It hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for Australia. Mystery still clouds the sacking of Alen Stajcic months out from the 2019 World Cup, where the Matildas were knocked out in the Round of 16 after strong ambitions to reach the final.

And, 18 months into Gustavsson’s reign, they held a concerning record of 11 losses, five draws and just eight wins in 24 matches, which included a shocking early exit from the 2022 Asian Cup.

There had already been calls for his sacking, including from ex-Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, even before Spain dealt the Matildas that 7-0 thumping in June .

But fast-forward nine months and it appears everything is finally starting to click.

“As a team we’ve gelled a lot and we’re very confident in our ability as a team,” Fowler said.

“And, having those good results, it builds trust,” she added. “Trust in yourself, in your teammates, in the coach and the whole process in where we’re taking the team.”

Fowler is keen to stress the team-first slogan, which is echoed throughout the Matildas camp and a culmination of a wider long-term plan under Gustavsson.

“What I’m most proud of is the team effort: It was a team out there tonight,” Gustavsson told media after that recent win over Spain. “They worked with each other, they played together. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Australia firing at the right time

The Matildas side that lost 7-0 to Spain may have been second-string, and the recent Spain side that lost 3-2 may have been missing star players due to a heated dispute with their federation, but the victory continues the steady progress made under Gustavsson.

“Right now, it’s just a really good feeling. We have a lot of momentum and, after winning the tournament in Australia, everything is positive and it seems to be a great match,” Fowler said.

Alongside building a collective unit, Gustavsson has promoted tactical flexibility, intensity and aggression as he has developed an attack-minded team that plays high-octane football.

Australia coach Tony Gustavsson applauds his team from the sideline
Gustavsson has ground out results after a tough start as the Matildas coach.Image: Darren Pateman/AAP/IMAGO

That Fowler, one of the brightest talents in world football, still comes off the bench just highlights the growing depth in the Matildas camp.

The squad has a healthy blend of stars hitting their prime, seasoned veterans and hungry youngsters as they hurtle toward the World Cup full of confidence.

“For everyone, it’s winning that’s on our mind,” Fowler said. “But in camp we are really just trying to stay focused, because you can’t think about the final if you haven’t got out of the group yet.”

Rapid progress toward a second World Cup

For someone who only just turned 20, Fowler’s grounded mindset stands out just as much as her undoubted ability on the field.

Fowler made her international debut at 15, went to the 2019 World Cup at 16 and moved to Montpellier at 17. Australia’s future hopes have been pinned to her for some time.

She has developed a reputation as a creative forward, comfortable taking on defenders with the ability to unleash bullets, while her vision and ability to pick out teammates with both feet has also earmarked her as a future playmaker.

Mary Fowler sitting on the bench wearing a Matildas jersey.
Mary Fowler made her international debut aged just 15.Image: Brad Smith/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

“I enjoy playing the 9 and I enjoy playing the 10 as well,” she said about her favored position. “I think being a player where you can play multiple positions isn’t a bad thing, and it gives me a lot more awareness of the game as a whole.”

A move to Manchester City in the summer has seen Fowler’s playing time decrease, but the exposure to high-quality training with some of the best players in the world has also helped lift her game.

“It pushes you a lot to want to be better and just to see exactly where the top is,” Fowler said.

“The standard in this team is very high, so there’s something to learn from everyone,” Fowler said. “And I feel as a player it’s pushed me a lot, training every day with these girls.”

Big tests before home comforts

Fowler exudes calm when talking about the prospect of playing at a home World Cup. It’s a historical moment for football in a country where the sport battles for media attention.

“It’s really exciting and it will be an honor if I get the chance to play. We just really want to build on our recent results, stay together as a team and move forward,” she said.

The next step forward is taking on two of the tournament favorites. Gustavsson’s desire to prepare the Matildas by playing against the very best will see Australia face European champions England in April, before a final match against France a week before the team’s World Cup opener against Ireland on July 20.

If the Matildas are to convince the rest of the world that they’re true contenders on their home turf, they’ll have to put in strong performances against the two heavyweights.

“Being able to have good results against top opponents is key, and we’ve done really well recently,” Fowler said. “Everyone’s feeling very confident, and it’s just built up the trust even more in our abilities and what we can do.”

For the Matildas, this is a huge opportunity to inspire kids, both girls and boys, around the nation and grow football Down Under. “It’s going to be a great tournament and being able to do it at home with so much support and the fans behind us, it’s going to really help us.”

Edited by: James Thorogood

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