Tony Gustavsson bristles as he hunches over the post-match microphone. It was the same microphone behind which, 24 hours earlier, the Matildas head coach sat beaming while previewing Australia’s historic semi-final against Sweden. But now, after his side’s 1-0 defeat by the Rio silver medallists, it is a wonder the metal does not melt in the white-hot reactor of his voice.
An Australian journalist asks the delicate question: did you tell the players they should be proud of what they have achieved here in Tokyo? Gustavsson stares, unblinking, as though offended by the journalist’s use of past tense. “I didn’t say they should be proud of what they achieved,” he fires back, “because we have unfinished business here.”
It is an edge to the former USA women’s national team assistant that few have seen: a reaction to being on the losing side, which he has not been for swathes of his international career. But it is also, perhaps, a sign of just how emotionally invested Gustavsson has become in this Matildas side that captivated him with their “never-say-die” mentality long before he arrived.
This emotion has been visible throughout Australia’s storming Tokyo Olympics campaign – particularly in their 4-3 win against Great Britain in the quarter-final, in which he sprinted up and down the touchline, high-fiving players and roaring up into the empty stands.
“We’ve always got to this point and fallen at the last hurdle,” Sam Kerr said after that historic win. “When [Tony] first joined, that’s what a lot of us said: that we just want to get there, get through and give ourselves an opportunity to win a medal.
“He’s really instilled that belief that we can do it; we can beat any team and play the way we want to play. We’ve played every game how we play – we haven’t changed for anyone – and that gives us massive belief when we beat teams like Great Britain.”
That is what happens when someone believes in you: you start to think that maybe they’re right. Belief is something that has been draining from the Matildas in recent years, particularly after falling short at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It was not that they did not have the talent; it was that, in some way, they did not seem to believe they had it in themselves.
But Australia’s Tokyo Olympics campaign has changed that. After easing their way into Group G with a comfortable – if rusty – win against New Zealand, Australia then faced the Swedish side they met in the semi-final. Despite that 4-2 group-stage defeat, the Matildas performed admirably, dominating the now-gold-medal favourites in several patches of play.
That game, arriving when it did, was a blessing in disguise for the tactical Gustavsson. On Monday, against the same side, it was clear he had learned the lessons of that earlier defeat to address Australia’s shortcomings and push Sweden to their limits.
Indeed, the Matildas dominated the Swedes in almost every statistical category in the semi-final: possession, duels, corners, free-kicks, passes, crosses, shots. But for a handful of breakaways in behind the Matildas’ much-improved defensive line, the width of a crossbar, and a freak deflection that Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfö balletically swept home, Australia kept the fifth-ranked side to one of their quietest games all tournament. And who knows what may have happened had Kerr’s acrobatic volley just before half-time not been called back for a questionable foul?
All this goes some way to explaining Gustavsson’s post-match fury. “I’ve lost some games in my career as a coach, but losing this way, when I think – from the first minute – these players showed such bravery and attacking mindset and belief in what they’re doing,” he said.
“And before the game, everyone talking about Sweden being the best team in the tournament, playing fantastic attacking football. [But] we saw from the first minute that we wanted to dominate this game. There was no fear whatsoever, it was just confidence and belief.”
There’s that word again: belief. It was echoed by Steph Catley, who joined Gustavsson to address media: “The football we’re playing right now is incredible,” she said. “I’ve never had this feeling the same before in terms of the belief and genuinely thinking we are capable of beating anyone on any given day.”
While there was public scepticism of Gustavsson’s project after Australia’s experimental pre-Tokyo friendlies, sentiment now appears to be shifting. The same belief that is filling the players has begun to spill out across the rest of the nation, building even more excitement and expectation for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. So as the Matildas prepare to face the USA in the bronze-medal match on Thursday, the question now becomes: can the belief that got them this far also carry them into the history books?