Australia's women are through to the last eight at a major tournament for the first time. FIFA.com caught up with Australia coach Adrian Santrac to hear about his team's rapid development, women's football in general and how he rates the Matildas' chances at the Olympics.
You're in the quarter-finals at a major tournament for the first time. Is this the greatest moment yet for Australian women's football?
I'd have to say so. We've won our first major tournament match and drawn with the USA, so it's a huge achievement. And we've played good football in the group matches. We're a young footballing nation and we have a huge amount to learn, but now we have a great chance. Who knows, if we play to our full potential maybe we could get even further than the last eight. Our target is to stay in the tournament and get as far as we can, although we have some inexperienced players in the team who still have everything to learn.
How important was the draw against the USA for your confidence?
It was very important, as we'd lost our last sixteen games against the USA. But apart from the result, what pleased me was the way we approached the second half. It was the first time we've really held our own at the highest level: normally it's been a case of trying to keep the score down. My players have come away from the game with huge belief and confidence. A couple of weeks back we played the USA in a friendly and led 1-0 at half-time, but ended up losing the match. Since that day we've realised what we can achieve if we concentrate over the full 90 minutes. Obviously, Sweden will be an exceptionally difficult job; they're highly respected by everyone, but we don't need to be afraid. They have a fantastic team and they've improved dramatically in the four years since Sydney 2000. They obviously have the ability to come from behind and win. After an hour against Nigeria it looked as though they were going home with no points. They seemed to have run out of ideas, but then they started taking their chances. That's the mark of a great team.
You took over as Australia coach in 2001. In which areas have your team improved the most?
The first thing I did when I started was to tackle the mentality. Women's football is still in its infancy in Australia, so the first thing to do was inject more professionalism. The players always took the job seriously, but we were miles behind the leading nations. So to start with, we had to ask questions about the players' and coaches' attitude, and especially their attitude to training. If your goal is to mix it with the best, it wasn't enough to hold two or three training sessions a week. You've got to be prepared to work harder. Right now, the team is much younger than I originally expected. This squad could stay together through the next World Cup until the next Olympic Games, maybe even longer. The revised structure of Australian football is bound to spark further changes. My 18 players have come on enormously over the last six weeks. The sky's the limit in terms of their ability and potential.
Do you think you've found the right blend of youth and experience?
I think so, although when I started I reckoned we'd bring a much more experienced team to the Olympics, probably with an average age of 26 or 27. But when we sat down in June to pick the names, we made it our priority simply to pick the best players, and that's how we arrived at this squad. I don't think anyone's noticed our lack of experience in the tournament so far. Young and old alike had problems with the pressure in the opening match against Brazil. I have high-quality young players, and quality throughout the team. We're extremely fit and we have outstanding technical and physical ability.
Tell us something about Sally Shiphard. When did she come to your attention?
Sally is exceptionally young. She's only just turned 16, but she's unbelievably determined and mature. She's met every challenge head on so far and come through with flying colours. I'm just thinking back to the second half against the USA when we switched things around in midfield, and she just got stuck in and took control. But she's so very young, and football can change people. She's deserved her success. She's anything but a wild child and she's stayed modest and reasonable. We've been watching her for a while, which is the case with all our younger players. Sally did well but wasn't outstanding in Oceania U-19 qualifying, so I really wasn't sure if she was ready, but I invited her to our training camp in May to let her get a feel for the environment. And then, in the first week she turned in such a scintillating performance I had no option but to keep her with us. She was outstanding the whole time and came away as our best midfielder. So in the end there wasn't a decision to make, she made it for me. That's how it should be; players should make the decisions for us by what they do.
You have no realistic opposition in Oceania. Is it a major problem investing so much time and money to find high-class opponents? Do you occasionally play men's teams?
When the players aren't with the national squad, they train in their home states as part of our national programme, which includes matches against male junior teams in a variety of age groups, depending on the level our players have reached. Basically it's a major problem. Either we or our opponents have a long, long way to go just to get a game, and it's equally difficult for our men's and women's teams. Teams from other confederations such as UEFA or CONCACAF are obviously better prepared for major tournaments because they regularly come up against top-class opponents. It makes the whole thing difficult for us, but we just have to look for ways to compensate.
You've made it to the quarter-finals. What's a realistic goal for the rest of the tournament?
I'm not setting an upper limit. We know we've got a tough meeting with Sweden. In the semi-finals we'd be up against Mexico or Brazil and it looks like the USA or Germany in the Final. We're talking about three unbelievably difficult matches, and if I was to say we'll go on and win gold, I'd be showing no respect to these teams. It would be the wrong way to go about things. But at the same time, we're hardly going to approach these games thinking we'll lose. We have belief and confidence in our own abilities. And obviously anything can happen. It's not just a dream, it could still become reality.