Tony Gustavsson has worked long and hard to suppress as much information as possible about the Matildas’ tactics and the fitness of his key players, most notably Sam Kerr, as is his right. At times, he has gone to extraordinary lengths, and has even been accused of disrespecting Australian fans by keeping so many secrets.
So imagine how he felt when, as his team held their final training session on the eve of Monday night’s World Cup round of 16 clash against Denmark, a helicopter buzzed overhead.
That’s AFL grand final week or State of Origin treatment. The surest sign yet, if it wasn’t already blatantly obvious, that this team has officially made it.
The chopper was sent by News Corp, after the 15-minute window in which journalists are permitted to watch — presumably to glean some form of insight on whether Kerr will actually play. She spent the session off her feet and on a stationary bike, Gustavsson said, as part of her comeback plan, so they might not have learned much.
In a way, it was the ultimate sign of respect.
“I’ll try to be a bit funny here,” Gustavsson said. “It says that the interest has gone sky-high, right?”
“Sorry, that was a bad one. But really, it does say a lot about the interest in the team and what’s happening in this country.”
But Gustavsson’s next comments offered a window into the natural and understandable neuroticism of any high-level coach, and his fears over what could occur if sensitive tactical intelligence — perhaps about the team’s shape, or their penalty shootout plans — lands in the hands of the opposition.
“As a coach, you’re standing at training, thinking like, ‘OK, what pictures are they taking now? Are things going to leak? How’s this going to influence [the game]?’ But at the same time, you need to respect that there’s people out there trying to be creative and get insights to things and want to follow the team in every sense they can,” he said.
“I also hope that the people that potentially captured something show the respect to the team and to the fans, because I think our fans probably don’t want to have anything revealed that can hurt our performance for tomorrow — and whoever captured that, I hope respect our will and the fans’ will in that sense.”
Is Gustavsson planning some sort of Danish surprise? We’ll find out at 8.30pm at Stadium Australia, but he went on to provide his most meaningful update of Kerr’s condition since the World Cup started, revealing that she has returned to proper, full-on training with the rest of the team, Sunday’s bike session notwithstanding.
“We had a nice moment as a team yesterday [Saturday] to see her back with the boots on and touching the ball and be with the team and training,” he said.
“It was a very good feeling for her, the players and the teammates, and for me.”
The extent of her involvement, though, was to be determined by a meeting with the Matildas’ medical staff later on Sunday — along with Kyah Simon, who is inching closer to a return from her ACL injury, and Gustavsson has hinted may come on in the event of a shootout. He has planned for that, too, referring to a statistic that teams who lift trophies in tournaments like this usually face at least one of them along the way.
Ideally, though, the Matildas will get it done inside 90 minutes – but their recent history in crucial knockout games does not bode well. At the 2022 Asian Cup, they lost 1-0 to South Korea in the quarter-finals, after which Kerr apologised to her teammates for squandering so many chances. At the Tokyo Olympics, they fell by the same scoreline to Sweden in the semi-final, missing out on the gold medal match.
Gustavsson believes this is now a different, more mature team. “A game like this, it’s not really about statistics from before or stats or history. It’s about this one game in this one moment against a completely different team, completely different circumstances,” he said.
“This game lives its own life. This game lives by itself. I look at this game as in isolation and I know that the team is ready for it.”
Sports news, results and expert commentary. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.