Australian football needs to heed Sam Kerr’s World Cup exit rallying cry

If Australia is to progress as a football nation it should ditch the facile results-only obsession

With family and friends waiting outside in the foyer, just hours after Australia’s morale-crushing round of 16 loss to Norway, captain Sam Kerr rallied her troops with an impromptu and typically straight-talking speech at the team hotel. Her message was simple. Losing sucked. The team had set their sights on a final-four finish, they’d come up short. Which really sucked. But it wasn’t the end.

Kerr spoke passionately about coach Ante Milicic and his staff, thanking them for the most professional Matildas environment she’d ever been a part of. With an eye on the Olympics ahead, the captain concluded with another simple message: stay together, stay focused, and this team would do something very special.

It was a speech of defiance. A speech of optimism. And yet it was a speech that stands in stark contrast with much of the immediate reaction to the loss, one of negativity and disappointment, with a rapid descent into finger pointing.

Australian football is a passionate community. Sometimes that passion leads to positive outcomes, often it actively dissipates goodwill surrounding the game and enervates those within it. Amid all the noise – too often driven by historical animosities and private agendas – objective assessments of “success” or “failure” are the first casualty.

But there’s a very clear corrective. If Australia is to progress as a football nation its fans and media need to ditch the facile results-only obsession. If we’re to hold our players, coaches or administrators to account it has to be on something more substantial than simply Ws or Ls.

Football is a cruel game. Ask former champions Japan if they deserved to go out in the round of 16 on Tuesday after a hugely contentious 90th minute penalty handed the Netherlands victory. Johan Cruyff’s fabled Total Football side lost the 1974 men’s World Cup. Ferenc Puskás and friends lost the 1954 decider. Good teams get beat. Losses don’t automatically render a side as failures.

If there’s another takeaway from this World Cup it’s that Australian football fans and media need to adjust their entitlement to being winners. This isolated island nation doesn’t stomp the world in football like it does in cricket, netball, rugby league or any other sports played by only 15-odd countries.

Australians may have hoped that with a world-class striker leading the side and the nominal ranking of No 6 hanging over the Matildas that success was almost a fait accompli. But expectations anchored in hope alone are a useless litmus test – and an unfair barometer to retrospectively judge success by.

It also shows a huge ignorance as to what else is happening around the world. With a record seven of eight quarter-finalists in France 2019 coming from Europe this World Cup has already heralded a huge power-shift over just a few years.

If the roots of Europe’s rise are to be found in meteoric recent investment in domestic leagues, clubs and players then huge challenges lie ahead for Australia’s administrators of the women’s game – whoever that will even be. And if the sophistication of analysis is that a win triggers unquestioning jubilation and a loss an outbreak of backbiting then it’s time to admit your football culture is in trouble.

Which performances should we as an aspiring football nation acclaim – a scrappy 3-2 win over Equatorial Guinea at the 2011 women’s World Cup, or a spirited 3-2 loss against the eventual third-placed team at the 2014 men’s World Cup?

There are bad wins and honourable losses. Sometimes fortune just isn’t in your corner. There doesn’t have to be somebody at fault or someone to blame. None of which is an argument for lapsing back into a morass of unthinking acceptance of bad results – they tried their best, they gave it everything.

Ante Milicic and his staff, by their own standards, never consistently achieved the level of patient, courageous, possession-based football they repeatedly stated as their objective. But criticisms that his team was defensively suspect because they naively “played a high-line” ignores that this has been the preferred tactic for several years prior.

And any condemnation based on the lack of central defenders selected in his squad wilfully ignores a history in which his predecessor Alen Stajcic experimented with W-League golden-boot winning striker Larissa Crummer as a ersatz centre back – such was the shortage of options available to him. These problems have been around for years.

Big questions remain of Milicic – why his team has gone six games without a clean sheet since the Cup of Nations; why Elise Kellond-Knight never played in her preferred holding-midfield role in France; why the front-third rotations and passing patterns too often lacked cohesion.

But with that must come an acknowledgement of the progression in style, attitude and tactical sophistication that the Matildas have undergone already in the past five months.

Under Milicic, Australia have attempted to dominate possession, pass out from the back and probe with patience in the final third. It hasn’t always been successful, it hasn’t always been effective. But it’s a complete revamp of philosophy in keeping with a global environment in which women’s football is rapidly evolving. Stand still and you go backwards.

Whether the Milicic era proves “successful” may hang not only on the results from next year’s Tokyo Olympics but also whether the style of play continues to progress or keep pace with the rest of the world.