Until last Thursday, the story of 2007 for Australia's women's team would likely have been described as a tale of disappointment.
The Matildas' sole pre-FIFA Women's World Cup goal had,
after all, been to qualify for the Olympic Games, and ultimately
their bid to reach Beijing ended in failure. Consecutive 2-0
defeats inflicted by a powerful Korea DPR side in early June
ensured that Tom Sermanni's side missed out on the opportunity
to surpass their achievement of reaching the quarter-finals at
Athens 2004, and left his players questioning their own collective
Their Scottish coach was certainly candid in defeat. "Sometimes you simply get beaten by a better team," Sermanni said graciously of the North Koreans. "The effort from our players was absolutely unbelievable, they gave everything possible. But at the moment, I would say that Korea DPR are probably as close to being as unbeatable as any women's team that I have seen."
Missing out to an ever-improving outfit already ranked fifth in the world represented no disgrace, but it undoubtedly knocked the confidence of an Australian squad who had been making some decidedly bullish statements about their China 2007 prospects.
Sermanni's hope was that the healing process would begin with a double-header of friendly matches against their old OFC rivals New Zealand and, sure enough, those July fixtures ended in morale-boosting wins - with a couple of clean sheets thrown in for good measure.
Yet it is only over the past month that belief has truly been restored to the Matildas' ranks. Nonetheless, August began routinely enough, a predictably comfortable 8-1 win away to Hong Kong in Australia's penultimate Olympic qualifier witnessing nothing too remarkable other than the emergence of some exciting and previously unknown youngsters.
Sermanni's more experienced players then returned for the team's final pre-China 2007 competitive fixture, and though the 7-0 home win over Chinese Tapei couldn't revive their Olympic dream, goals from Sarah Walsh, Heather Garriock, Joanne Peters, Kate Gill and a hat-trick for Caitlin Munoz left the coach reflecting on "a satisfactory performance". "It was a very good opportunity ahead of the World Cup to look further at our structure and our personnel," he continued. "We are building up quite solidly for next month, and I'm fairly satisfied with our progress at this stage."
Fast forward to today, and that quiet satisfaction had been replaced by genuine delight. The reason? Resounding back-to-back victories over the FIFA Women's World Cup hosts on Chinese soil, both in front of passionate and partisan home crowds.
This was an outcome few expected, particularly after Australia arrived in China with the influential and experienced trio of goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri, midfielder Joanne Peters and talismanic captain Cheryl Salisbury all nursing injuries. The Matildas were there to help officially open Tianjin's FIFA Women's World Cup venue, the Olympic Center Stadium, but they clearly had no intentions of adhering to the expected script.
China might be four places better off in the FIFA Women's World Ranking and they went into the opening game against the Aussies buoyed by Marika Domanski-Lyfors' impact since taking charge, but within 28 minutes of the match kicking off, that optimism had all but disappeared. By that point, Sermanni's side had raced into a 2-0 lead and were already bossing proceedings, Lisa De Vanna embarking on a mazy solo run from inside her own half to add to an earlier strike from 23-year-old defender Kate McShea.
Roared on by an expectant crowd, the Steel Roses rallied in the second half, but although a quickfire Han Duan double briefly restored parity, Sarah Walsh popped up seven minutes from time to seal a deserved win for the impressive Matildas. China's sole consolation was that they would need to wait just three days for the chance to exact revenge, but although a 52,000-strong crowd packed into the same venue for the sides' return meeting, they outcome was to prove even more humbling for them.
By half-time, goals from Heather Garriock, Caitlin Munoz and
talented youngster Collette McCallum had already seen Australia
establish a comfortable three-goal cushion, and but for the
woodwork and a couple of disallowed goals, the scoreline could
easily have made even more dismal reading for the disillusioned
home supporters. Domanski-Lyfors' side did scramble a
consolation goal in the closing minutes, but it failed to disguise
the fact that they had been comprehensively outplayed by an
Australian side who flew home reinvigorated and with faith in
Sermanni said: "I am absolutely delighted with the performance, especially considering the difficult circumstances. Some injuries to key players meant some adjustments to the line-up and also positional changes, but the team responded admirably. The matches have been superb preparation on a number of levels and once again the depth amongst the squad has been shown to be significant."
Aspiring to the Socceroos' standard
That point had already been underlined when Sermanni named his 21-strong squad for China 2007, supplementing the experience of Salisbury, Peters and Dianne Alagich - a trio with ten FIFA Women's World Cups between them - with the youth of Sally Shipard, Collette McCallum, Lydia Williams and Clare Polkinghorne, all of whom shone at last year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia. "It was a difficult proposition given we have such a strong group of players," admitted Sermanni, "so narrowing the squad down was a more complex task than might have been the case in previous tournaments."
Australia, who open their China 2007 campaign against Ghana on 12 September in a group that also features Norway and Canada, have appeared at three previous FIFA Women's World Cup Cups, but are keen to shed to the unwanted record of having never won a match at the global showpiece.
"That is our first aim, and we want to make it to the knockout stages," is the verdict of goalkeeper Barbieri. "Norway are a top-four nation, but they are not unbeatable. Canada are top ten, but they are beatable, while Ghana are a very unpredictable African team. We are hopeful."
Sermanni, whose side qualified for the tournament by reaching the final of the AFC Women's Championship last year, shares his goalkeeper's confidence, and is relishing the fact that the higher-ranked Norwegians and Canadians will start as favourites. "All four teams in our group will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout stage," he said. "The popular perception will be that Norway and Canada will progress and that suits us fine. Our players are both capable and confident of progressing from the group stage."
The Matildas coach also claimed that his side will draw inspiration from the heroic performances of their male counterparts at Germany 2006, with memories of those remarkable victories over Japan and Croatia still fresh in Australian minds.
"Like us, the Socceroos went into the tournament as outsiders," Sermanni said. "But they have shown what can be achieved at international level if a group of players are organised, focused and are working together, and that has given us a huge boost and helped our self-belief.
"What we do have in this squad that we didn't have in previous squads is a very potent strike force that is very well balanced. We've got some good height, some pace and proven goalscorers at international level. If we go into the tournament with a fully fit and healthy squad, we'll be disappointed if we don't get through the group stages."
Australia now look forward to completing their preparations with a five-day training camp in Sydney before departing for Hangzhou on 5 September.