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Young Matildas’ U-20 Women’s World Cup campaign showed Australian football what its future could look like

There was a moment, about 17 minutes into the Young Matildas’ final group game at the U-20 Women’s World Cup where it felt like everything we had assumed about the direction of Australian youth football was wrong.

It started in Australia’s own half. After an attempted through-ball by the opposition striker, centre-back Ella Tonkin intercepted and passed calmly sideways to defensive partner Naomi Thomas-Chinnama.

Thomas-Chinnama turned the ball neatly behind her to change direction and, after taking one more touch, sent a line-splitting pass through the midfield and into the feet of teammate Sarah Hunter.

Centre-back Naomi Thomas-Chinnama, 18, was one of Australia’s stand-out players in Costa Rica.(Getty Images: FIFA/Tim Nwachukwu)

With her back to goal, Hunter spun and, with her second touch, sent the ball through the legs of her tracking defender through to winger Abbey Lemon.

Lemon, recognizing she had little time with the defense scrambling, took a touch in-field before sliding a cross into the box for galloping forward Charlie Rule.

An opponent’s toe just took the ball out of Rule’s path, but the striker didn’t give up: she threw herself at the rebound, poking the ball right into the path of incoming midfielder Daniela Galic, who was stationed near the penalty spot.

Galic, with meters of green space around her, had time to take a touch and steady herself. But in the heat of the moment, the 16-year-old fired first-time over the crossbar, throwing her head into her hands as the ball sailed into the stands.

Female soccer players battle for the ball during a game
Daniela Galic (right), the youngest squad member for Australia, was named player of the match in the opening group game and impressed throughout the tournament.(Getty Images: FIFA/Tim Nwachukwu)

This sharp, progressive, dynamic passage of play — the latest in a string of dominant moves in the opening stages of the match — didn’t just carve apart any old opponent.

This was Spain: the recent U-19 Women’s European Championship winners, containing more than a dozen professional players currently signed for some of the world’s biggest clubs, including Barcelona, ​​Sevilla, and Atletico Madrid.

By contrast, this was a Young Matildas team filled with players whose most recent football was played in the state-based National Premier Leagues competitions around Australia.

You wouldn’t have known it based on that 16-minute spell, though. Indeed, by this point, the Young Matildas had registered more shots, more penalty-box entries, more passes, and more better chances than their glittering opponents. They were, at this point, the better team.

Had Galic’s shot hit the back of the net instead of the back of the grandstand, one wonders how differently the remaining 75 minutes — during which Spanish striker Inma Gabarro scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win despite a relatively even game stats- wise—would have unfolded.

A female soccer player wearing blue and white stretches out for the ball
Inma Gabarro, who has over 60 caps for Sevilla in Spain’s top-flight, scored a hat-trick against Australia in the final group game.(Getty Images: Quality Sport Images/Juan Luis Diaz)

And that is one of the lingering feelings after Australia’s early exit at the U-20 Women’s World Cup campaign: opportunities taken and opportunities missed.

Both were present at this tournament, starting with the Young Matildas’ very attendance there, invited to take the place of withdrawn North Korea after they’d missed out on qualifying back in 2019.

In that sense, everything Australia experienced at this tournament was a bonus. But what fans saw was more than just a team making up the numbers.

The Young Matildas dominated their opening match against home nation Costa Rica, registering twice as many shots and passes as their opponents, as well as maintaining 68 per cent of possession.

Their 3-1 win was well-deserved, displaying both maturity and resilience in coming back from a goal down in front of more than 22,000 people, and playing a style of possessive, proactive football that felt unusual for an Australian youth national team often criticized for their overreliance on speed, athleticism, and reactive transitional play.

Female soccer players wearing yellow and green hug after scoring against a team in red and blue
Australia defeated Costa Rica 3-1 in their opening group game.(Getty Images: FIFA/Buddha Mendes)

Beyond the style of football on display, that opening game also saw the arrival of a handful of talented young players who have earmarked themselves as future senior Matildas.

Despite being the youngest of the squad, midfielder Daniela Galic dazzled in her first match at U-20s level, being named player of the match after dancing through a spirited Costa Rica side.

Centre-backs Thomas-Chinnama and Tonkin also demonstrated an authority, calmness and game-awareness at the heart of the Australia’s defense that bucked the trend of hesitant and error-prone central defenders in Australia’s national teams in recent years.

Goalkeeper Sally James was similarly commanding when it mattered, rarely making individual errors, communicating constantly, positioning herself appropriately and dominating most balls in the air.

And 19-year-old Sarah Hunter continued her exciting trajectory from injury-prone teenager with zero international game experience to one of the country’s most consistent and sophisticated midfielders, tucking away Australia’s opening goal against Costa Rica and wearing the captain’s armband in the final match against Spain.


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