Socceroos' success spurs Ferguson
© AFP

For Australia's devoted football disciples, Germany 2006 will forever be remembered as heralding an initiation of sorts for the country as a whole. "That was when Australia really woke up to the game," is how Alicia Ferguson succinctly sums up the impact made by Guus Hiddink's Socceroos' heroic and headline-grabbing campaign.

For Ferguson and her team-mates, their male counterparts also provided a blueprint for changing attitudes and generating enthusiasm; one the Matildas intend shamelessly copying in an attempt to do for the women's game what Messrs Kewell, Cahill and Co did for the sport in general. The holding midfielder has certainly marvelled at the knock-on benefits reaped by Australia's A-League, won by a Melbourne Victory side commanding an average attendance just short of 30,000, and believes that Tom Sermanni's team can be prove an equally potent force for good.

After all, the Matildas' success in China thus far comes despite a domestic situation that sees their star players languish in regional amateur leagues, attempting to maintain their fitness and develop their skills while also holding down day jobs that pay the bills. That is why Ferguson believes that, as well as battling Canada for a place in the quarter-finals on Thursday, the Australian women will also be fighting for professional credibility in their homeland.

She said: "We get bits and pieces sent through from what's being written back home or online and it's been great to see that the press has been so positive. But it's still just a start as far as I'm concerned. To really make an impact, we definitely need to qualify for the quarter-finals because I think it's only then that people will take notice. It's important to grab the public's attention, and after what happened with the Socceroos last year we have to be optimistic about what can be achieved.

"The effect that has had is just amazing, and although I'm not saying things will change overnight, I don't think it's unrealistic for us to expect a similar boost to women's football if we can go the quarter-finals and beyond. Our domestic situation certainly needs sorted because at the moment our league set-up is pretty non-existent and we end up playing against boys teams more often than not. I just hope that this competition, and this team, can provide the impetus we need to get things up and running in that respect."

'China 2007's most underrated team'
Though still just 26, Ferguson has experience of more than one false dawn for women's football Down Under, most notably when she was part of the Matildas squad that returned from USA 1999 with their tails firmly between their legs. That tournament ended on a particularly sour note for the then 17-year-old when she was given her marching orders within two minutes of Australia's final group match, and she displayed a laudable sense of humour in assessing what sets the current squad apart from its predecessors.

"Well, I can tell you exactly why this tournament's better than '99," she said, "I haven't been sent off yet! Seriously, I can see already that this team is at a different level to the one we had then, particularly in terms of the strength of the squad as a whole. I think we've shot ourselves in the foot at previous tournaments and that's probably why people were expecting the same from us again, but I'm confident that won't happen.

"Although a point will be enough for us against Canada, we will definitely be going for the win. We don't want to just scrape through, we want to go on to the quarters on merit. Knowing this team, even if we draw and go through, there will be genuine disappointment that we didn't win the match. We're just pleased that we've finally shown everyone what Australia's all about. I think any neutrals watching us so far would be impressed, and now we just need to make sure we finish the job."

Neutrals and rivals alike have, in fact, been united in praise of a team described - fairly, according to Ferguson - as "the most underrated side at this World Cup" by Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen. "To be honest, I think that being underestimated suits us," said the Queensland Sting midfielder. "It's like the Socceroos. Everyone just thought they were just a tough, physical team who would keep trying but lacked quality. People didn't see the talent, just as they haven't seen it with us."

Ferguson's wish is that the similarities don't end there.