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Australia and Fowler confident ahead of 2023 World Cup

July 18, 2023

A year ago Australian soccer was reeling from a 7-0 loss against Spain. But after wins ahead of the 2023 World Cup, rising star Mary Fowler feels the Australian team is timing its run to perfection.

Mary Fowler in a Matildas jersey celebrating a goal with her arms outstrecthed.
Mary Fowler has demonstrated that she can make an impact on a match when coming from the benchImage: Andrew Wiseman/DeFodi /picture alliance

In terms of dress rehearsals ahead of a home World Cup, Australia and Mary Fowler couldn't really have asked for a better outcome. A sharp finish from one of Australia's rising stars in front of more than 50,000 fans in Melbourne gave the Matildas a 1-0 win over highly-fancied France.

It was the latest result in a string of good form that has emerged in the past year, which has Australia purring towards their opener against Ireland on Thursday evening.

Just days out from a home World Cup, the team showed that it cannot only match one of the best possession-based sides in the world, but also trump them.

After a rocky few years under coach Tony Gustavsson, in a tenure punctured with poor results and unconvincing tactical displays, the Matildas have extinguished any criticism from local media and fan base.

For Mary Fowler, still just 20 years old, it's all been part of a process that's finally coming good.

"It's actually happened in a really good way. Being back in that time, during a rocky period, you maybe wouldn't have foreseen it to be how it is now. But the timing has been perfect," she told DW.

A huge turning point arrived back in February when the Matildas defeated Spain 3-2, an opponent which had thrashed them 7-0 just eight months earlier.

The win came in the Cup of Nations, where Australia also defeated Jamaica and Czechia in an ideal warm-up on home soil before the big show.

"It's really good momentum going into the World Cup," Fowler said. "We've been having a lot of good results lately, but to be able to do it in a mini-tournament, it just amplifies that feeling even more."

Australia's women's football team lifting a trophy in celebration.
The Matildas lifted the Cup of Nations in February.Image: Darren Pateman/AAP/IMAGO

Trust fosters Matildas' team spirit

It hasn't exactly been a smooth ride for Australia. Mystery still clouds the sacking of Alen Stajcic months out from the 2019 World Cup, where the Matildas were knocked out in the round-of-16 after strong ambitions to reach the final.

And, 18 months into Gustavsson's reign, they held a concerning record of 11 losses, five draws and just eight wins, which included a shocking early exit from the 2022 Asian Cup.

There had already been calls for his sacking, including from ex-Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, even before Spain dealt the Matildas the 7-0 thumping in June of 2022.

But fast-forward a year and it appears everything is finally starting to click.

"As a team we've gelled a lot and we're very confident in our ability as a team," Fowler said.

"And, having those good results, it builds trust. Trust in yourself, in your teammates, in the coach and the whole process in which we're taking the team."

Fowler is keen to stress the team-first slogan, which is echoed throughout the Matildas camp and a culmination of a wider long-term plan under Gustavsson.

"What I'm most proud of is the team effort: It was a team out there tonight," Gustavsson told media after that win over Spain. "They worked with each other, they played together. That's what I'm most proud of."

Australia firing at the right time

The Matildas side that capitulated against Spain may have been second-string, and the recent Spain side that lost 3-2 may have been missing star players due to a heated dispute with their federation, but the victory continued the steady progress made under Gustavsson.

They kept the ball rolling in April when they produced a stunning 2-0 win against European champions England, ending the Lionesses'  30-game unbeaten run under Sarina Wiegman.

"Right now, it's just a really good feeling. We have a lot of momentum and everything is positive and it seems to be a great match," Fowler said.

Alongside building a collective unit, Gustavsson has promoted tactical flexibility, intensity and aggression as he's developed an attack-minded team that plays high-octane football and utilizes transitions.

Australia coach Tony Gustavsson applauds his team from the sideline
Gustavsson has ground out results after a tough start as the Matildas coach.Image: Darren Pateman/AAP/IMAGO

That Fowler, one of the brightest talents in world football, still comes off the bench just highlights the growing depth in the Matildas camp.

The squad has a healthy blend of stars hitting their prime, seasoned veterans and hungry youngsters as they hurtle toward the World Cup full of confidence.

"For everyone, it's winning that's on our mind," Fowler said. "But in camp we are really just trying to stay focused, because you can't think about the final if you haven't got out of the group yet."

Rapid progress toward a second World Cup

For someone who just turned 20, Fowler's grounded mindset stands out just as much as her ability on the field.

Fowler made her international debut at 15, went to the 2019 World Cup at 16 and moved to Montpellier at 17. Australia's future hopes have been pinned to her for some time.

She has developed a reputation as a creative forward, comfortable taking on defenders with the ability to unleash bullets, while her vision and ability to pick out teammates with both feet has also earmarked her as a future playmaker.

Mary Fowler sitting on the bench
Mary Fowler made her international debut aged just 15.Image: Brad Smith/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

"I enjoy playing the 9 and I enjoy playing the 10 as well," she said about her favored position.

"I think being a player who can play multiple positions isn't a bad thing, and it gives me a lot more awareness of the game as a whole."

A move to Manchester City last summer saw Fowler's playing time decrease, but the exposure to high-quality training with some of the best players in the world has also helped lift her game.

"It pushes you a lot to want to be better and just to see exactly where the top is," Fowler said. "The standard in this team is very high, so there's something to learn from everyone. And I feel as a player it's pushed me a lot, training every day with these girls."

Big tests before home comforts

Fowler exudes calm when talking about the prospect of playing at a home World Cup. It's a historical moment for football in a country where the sport battles for media attention.

"It's really exciting and it will be an honor if I get the chance to play in the opener. We just really want to build on our recent results, stay together as a team and move forward," she said.

Her key role against France, ahead of Australia's opener against Ireland on July 20, shows that even from the bench she can play a crucial role.

Another strong performance would go a long way to convincing the rest of the world that the Matildas are true contenders on their home turf.

"Being able to have good results against top opponents is key, and we've done really well recently," Fowler said.

"Everyone’s feeling very confident, and it’s just built up the trust even more in our abilities and what we can do."

For the Matildas, this is a huge opportunity to inspire kids, both girls and boys, around the nation and grow football Down Under. "It's going to be a great tournament and being able to do it at home with so much support and the fans behind us, it's going to really help us."

Edited by Chuck Penfold.

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor