Australia hails magnificent Matildas

When Alicia Ferguson told of her desire to see the Matildas follow the Socceroos' example, she can hardly have imagined that their China 2007 campaign would follow the men's Germany 2006 experience quite so closely.

All the ingredients were there. Just as Guus Hiddink unearthed a goalscoring supersub in Tim Cahill, Tom Sermanni's side discovered their own unlikely hero in the electrifying Lisa De Vanna, three of whose four goals in China came from the bench. Then there was the heart-stopping late goal that sealed their place in the knock-out rounds, Cheryl Salibury's 93rd-minute equaliser against Canada topping even Harry Kewell's late strike against Croatia in the drama stakes.

Even the circumstances of the Matildas' exit were eerily familiar, losing by the narrowest of margins and only after giving one of the title favourites a major fright with a performance that belied their underdog status. Now the hope is that, as with the Socceroos, success at the global showpiece proves a prelude to the dawn of a new and exciting era in their domestic arena.

Australia has, after all, been without an organised national league ever since the WNSL was disbanded at the end of the 2004 season. Amid whispers that the success of the men's A-League could prompt the founding of a new women's top flight by late 2008, coach Tom Sermanni has once again stressed the importance of such a step. "Hopefully there's been talk about a national league coming in where players can raise the profile again," he said. "I think what should happen now is because of what we've done in this World Cup. What we've done is put down a very solid foundation and we have to just keep chipping away."

'A lasting legacy'
The Australian press certainly seem to have seized the initiative. Headlines such as 'Raise a glass to Matildas' thrilling skills' in the Sydney Morning Herald and 'Let's Build on Matildas' Success' in Australia's FourFourTwo have been commonplace over the past fortnight as Sermanni's side successfully captured the national imagination.

The Daily Telegraph helped educate a nation on the Matildas' endearingly innocent love of the game: "They come from all over the country and rely on gracious employers to give them time away to train together. Theirs is nothing like the world of an elite male soccer player... They play sport for all of the pure reasons for which it was invented in the first place - love, fun and winning.'

Support has also remained steadfast in the wake of their battling 3-2 quarter-final defeat by Brazil. The Australian certainly sounded a positive note: "The Matildas, under the affable Sermanni, have left a lasting legacy which will only serve to make women's football in Australia bigger and stronger." The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, lauded "another heart-and-soul performance from a group of players who have more than emulated the Socceroos' own World Cup adventure and put the women's game on to the front pages".

News of such praise was certainly of some cheer to captain Salisbury as she hobbled through the arrivals section of Sydney airport on Tuesday morning. "It's been a tough struggle for us over the years to try and get that media coverage," she said. "I just think it's awesome that kids are growing up now who have seen us play at a World Cup and that they can have those ambitions and those dreams now to play for the Matildas."

Coach's verdict
Meanwhile, Sermanni, who identified De Vanna and playmaker Collette McCallum as the Australia players who "really came of age" in China, was able to reflect with justifiable pride on the efforts of a side who surprised some and impressed many.

"When we went into the tournament, they talked about how the Matildas have improved a bit, but it seemed more in tokenism," Sermanni said. "I think once they saw us play, they realised that the team has come a long way and it wasn't just because we got some decent results - it was actually how the team performed.

"As a result we have earned credibility with the wider public back home and in the international women's football community. The players weren't afraid to get stuck in, especially against the strongest teams in the world, and we've played to our full potential."