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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But while there were some positive lessons learned from watching Australia’s performance across the three games, there are arguably some bigger ones to be taken from watching the teams they came up against.
Brazil was a particular wake-up call, overwhelming the Young Matildas from the opening whistle and barely losing momentum after an hour-long rain delay.
Individually, each of Brazil’s players displayed a technical refinement, physicality, and spatial understanding that usurped that of Australia, making few — if any — individual errors.
Collectively, too, the team was a force to be reckoned with: moving like clockwork across the field in choreographed moves, setting into precise defensive lines when out of possession, creating layers and overloads whenever they reached their final third.
In total, they registered 27 shots and seven corners to Australia’s one of each, all while having less of the ball (44 to 56 per cent) than their opponents.
There is possession, and then there is effective possession, and Brazil showed the power of one over the other.
Spain, meanwhile, offered Australia a different kind of lesson. While the Young Matildas dominated the opening 20 minutes of the match (as well as most of the stats by half-time), it was Spain who went into the break with a 2-0 lead thanks to the clinical efforts of one of its most experienced players in Gabarro.
The teenaged striker, who has amassed over 60 top-flight appearances for Sevilla, was a class above Australia’s comparable centre-forwards, with a first-time touch, reading of the ball, and deadly runs behind and between Australia’s defenders that only regular game time at the top level can teach.
By contrast, the Young Matilda with the highest number of appearances at the highest domestic level was midfielder Hana Lowry, who has amassed just 32 over three seasons in the much shorter, less competitive A-League Women (ALW).
That gulf in experience was the background hum of Australia’s fading-out and ultimate loss to the better-prepared, big-game Spaniards, with these structural differences already creating a base handicap for the Young Matildas that such international tournaments often highlight.
But that is starting to change with the ALW announcing its intentions to expand and extend the length of its season, while Football Australia is also slowly introducing a third age bracket (under-23s) to its overall women’s programming. Progress is incremental, but it’s there.
“It’s amazing what’s happened over the last year when it comes to investment and time for youth players,” senior Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson said.
“Look at the AFF [east Asia] tournament, where we had a youth U-23s team that got a chance to play together. And now the U-20s. [It] connects to this broader work that has been done over 18 months.
“You look at what the federation is trying to do with investments in all these pathways […] which feels really good from a head coach or senior national team perspective, that you have to trust that there’s a parallel process going on [with] long-term development.”
Ultimately, while they weren’t even meant to be in Costa Rica to begin with, the Young Matildas showed they had the individual and collective talent to match some of the best footballing nations in the world (even without some of their best players), and that they could do so by playing a style of football that is far more in keeping with the direction in which the women’s game is headed.
Not only that, but they did so with the same sense of joy, togetherness, and spirit that has made the Matildas one of Australia’s most recognizable and loved sports teams.
“How impressed I am [was] the bravery that they played with,” Gustavsson said.
“Take it to the opponent, no matter who’s on the other side of the field. Whether it’s an opening game against the host country, or whether it’s against one of the most technical teams in the world, take it to them; an in- your-face performance.
“I love to see that bravery from our young girls. And then individually, there’s been some performances that’s been really impressive: some of the players we identified in that AFF tournament and said, ‘let’s keep a really close eye on these players in the U-20 and compare them with some of the best U-20 players in the world and see where they’re at’.And some of them are far ahead.
“In terms of the long-term future, there’s some really interesting talent there.”
So while a group-stage exit from yet another youth World Cup may appear gloomy on the surface, the Young Matildas showed Australian football that the future can be bright — just so long as they’re given the opportunity to shine.