Australian Small bowled over in Europe
Bubbly, blonde and backpacking round Europe, Australia's no. 17 seems just like any other girl from Down Under. But behind the brilliant smile and the deep blue eyes lies an unfulfilled desire. Four years ago in her home town of Sydney, injury robbed Danielle Small of the thrill of performing before family and friends at the Olympics. Now, with the Games at their own birthplace, the attacking midfielder is desperate to make up for the disappointment by leading the Matildas' dance to a medal in Greece.
"Missing out was pretty difficult but it made my selection this time much sweeter," says the 25-year-old. "I tried to stay away in Sydney but the Olympics is so huge there was nowhere to turn without hearing about it, so I ended up being with the team. My focus is on Athens now and I really want to make the most of it."
With a win (Greece) and a loss (Brazil) in their first two games in the four-team Group G, Australia should have done enough to qualify for the quarter-finals but they will head into their tough third match against the United States looking for the point to make absolutely sure.
"We didn't impose our game on Brazil," reflects Small. "Against Greece we knew they would come at us because with USA and Brazil in our group we were the most likely candidate for them to get a result. But the score (1-0) didn't reflect the game - we've just watched it on video and we had 27 shots."
Away from the Olympics Small, who plays for Northern New South Wales Pride, teaches Physical Education and has recently been travelling Europe, giving special attention to a certain English county.
"My boyfriend (Philip Jaques) plays for Yorkshire Cricket Club as an overseas player," she smiles. "I've been getting some bar work and following the team."
With soccer still not a professional game in Australia and national team get-togethers sometimes consuming long periods, many of the young squad have found studying, part-time and temporary employment the best means to pursue their dream of playing. But even in a country where men's football is finding it tough to compete against rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules and cricket, the status of the women's game is on the rise.
"Soccer is a developing sport, it's getting bigger and bigger every year," enthuses Small. "We're not paid yet so the girls tend to get part-time jobs when they can."
A few years ago, while United States' Brandi Chastain was raising her shirt, many Matildas hit the headlines when they photographed semi-nude for a Calendar.
Despite the huge publicity it generated, the Australian girls have not made a date for another shoot.
"We've moved on from the calendar thing. It was used to raise our profile and now we're trying to make headlines from what we do on the field," she answers.
Across the hotel lobby sits a pin-up for many and one of the most recognisable faces in women's football - Mia Hamm. Scattered around are other long-serving members of the U.S. team who, after long and distinguished careers, could well be bidding farewell to the game in Greece.
"Their commitment to the game has been unbelievable and something to envy," drools Small, whose goal gave the Matildas the advantage in the most recent fixture between the two sides a couple of months ago before three strikes in the second half handed the U.S a 3-1 home win. "It's going to be tough but all the girls are really looking forward to it. We're confident we can get a good result."
Abby Wambach will miss the game through suspension but her striking partner Mia Hamm is raring to go after scoring in each of the opening two games to extend her world record tally.
"Whenever you play Australia, they are always tough; they battle for the full 90 minutes," says Hamm, a twice winner of the FIFA World Player award. "We will give them full respect and that means preparing for the match in the best possible way."
Her coach April Heinrichs would not reveal which of the four strikers - Cindy Parlow, Heather O Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley or Kristine Lilly would be given the nod but stressed that although they had already qualified for the quarter-finals, her team would play its usual game. "We will not be resting players," she said firmly.
The long-standing American coach admitted to some surprise at the way the U.S. were outplayed in the first period against Brazil but praised her girls' character in recovering to win the match 2-0.
"The margin between winning, drawing and losing is so small in the game that you cannot manipulate a result," she said. "We play to win."
Unless Greece pull off a miraculous victory against Brazil, there should be smiles all round at the final whistle in Thessaloniki whatever the result. For Danielle Small it will be one more hurdle overcome on the track to Olympic glory.