Blossoming Catley heads Matildas’ new wave

Boasting a rapidly developing reputation at both local and international level, Steph Catley seems to have a firm grip on the left full-back role as Australia head towards the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™. While her pathway at the top level seems assured now, it wasn't always the case.

Catley, though, has a steely determination that belies her relaxed off-field demeanour. As a relatively new member of the national team, Catley was still looking to fully embed herself at international level when the Matildas took on China PR in November 2013.

One such moment in that match spoke volumes for her raw determination to succeed. Catley dived into a challenge she could barely expect to win, however, she did so successfully only for the ball to run away towards an opponent. Catley leapt to her feet and repeated the feat a second, and then a third time, eventually coming up trumps in a trio of barely winnable contests within a matter of seconds. Looking from above in the media tribune former Socceroos captain Paul Wade – a fearsome competitor who made a career out of spoiling opposition attacks, most famously against Diego Maradona in a storied 1994 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier - broke into a broad smile that spoke of both appreciation and admiration.

With a lean, almost willowy build and an unassuming nature, Catley presents a modest figure away from the action. On the field, however, is a different story, as evidenced by that one brief vignette against China.

The Melbourne-born player boasts a resume that would be the envy of many. She has collected both individual and team honours, captained Melbourne Victory to a W-League championship and last year played alongside some of the globe’s most celebrated players at NWSL big-hitters Portland Thorns. Throw in a mature and measured personality, and it is hard to believe that Catley has only just celebrated her 21st birthday.

Seemingly Catley always had a natural aptitude for the technical side of the game, but how did she hone the physical aspects required for competing at the top? “I was told when I was younger that I was getting knocked off the ball too easily,” Catley told FIFA.com. “My physio didn’t want me to do weights as I might lose speed. I did Pilates and that made my core stronger, and it immediately impacted on my balance and strength on the ball. And going to America you have to be strong, you have to be able to hold up the ball or you will get annihilated.”

Dancing with the stars Catley didn't just survive the move Stateside, she positively thrived. “Not only did I grow as a player, but also as a person,” she said. “Mentally you have to be so much stronger when you are on your own. In a new environment, when no one really knows you, that is a challenge. You have your down times and to come through that and come out on top was a massive learning curve for me.

“I was surrounded by incredible players at Portland,” continues Catley, emphasising the adjective. Indeed a scan of the Portland roster reads like a short-list of the world’s best players: Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, Canada captain Christine Sinclair, Spain skipper Vero Boquete, plus USA trio Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Rachel Van Hollebeke (nee Buehler).

Catley’s introduction to Portland was eased by Boquete, where the imported duo shared lodgings. “All the Spanish she taught me I have already forgotten,” laughs Catley with fondness in her voice. “She is one of the best players I have ever played with, technically just incredible. We had some good chats and she helped settle me in. She's an amazing person and really easy to live with.”

Boquete’s Spain remain a possible opponent in Canada this June, although a meeting with Portland’s USA personnel is assured with the Matildas grouped alongside the Stars and Stripes, as well as Sweden and Nigeria, in arguably the toughest pool of the six.

Past inspiration and future dreaming Australia reached the quarter-finals for the first time in 2007, and repeated the feat four years ago. And both tournaments had a profound effect on Catley. She recalls watching China 2007 as a 13-year-old and realising for the first time that there was a national team to aspire to. Germany 2011, meanwhile, was the moment Catley realised she wanted to make her football dreams become reality.

“When the team walked out for the first game and seeing someone like (Australia midfielder) Caitlin Foord there - who I had played alongside - it made me realise that I could be there, that I could have been there, and how hard I would have to work,” said Catley who, between promotional work for Football Federation Australia, somehow finds time to study online for a Bachelor of Education. “I could imagine myself there and wanted it. I always trained pretty hard, but I then had that extra thing in my head that it was my goal.

“We have come a long way as a team,” Catley says of the current crop of Matildas. “Women’s football in Australia is getting a lot stronger. We have so many people competing for spots, which we haven’t really had before. Come the World Cup I think we will be ready to go.”