EXCLUSIVE: The Matildas reveal what gives them their winning edge

It's all about the spirit of sisterhood.
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“Inspiring. That’s the word.” This is how Matildas’ defender Alanna Kennedy describes the way she feels as she looks at her teammates and their families in the dining room of a hotel.

It’s one of the rare times the squad has been together in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup and the room bubbles with soft murmurs as the team enjoys lunch. On a round table Katrina Gorry, 30, feeds her one-year-old daughter. Ellie Carpenter, 23, sits alongside her, attempting to entertain the little one. Across the room Tameka Yallop, 31, and her partner watch their toddler waddle close by as many other players stop to say hello, each beaming at the sight of the child.

“The way they prepare themselves as professional athletes and have the responsibility of a little child,” 28-year-old Alanna continues, “is so inspiring to watch. And I think it just speaks to how amazing they are as women.”

It’s abundantly clear this group of Australia’s best female football talent is a tight-knit community which embraces family. So, letting cameras into what captain Sam Kerr describes as the “sacred” environment of the Matildas to film the Disney+ original series Matildas: The World At Our Feet was something the usually private striker was hesitant about at first.

“Just because the culture and team environment in a performing area is quite sacred to us,” Sam, 29, tells The Weekly. “And we try to keep it like that because we have to perform. You can’t let other voices in. You can’t let other opinions in. So there was a bit of hesitation. But I think once we spoke to the amazing [filmmakers], they just eased our minds. And then we were like, no, actually, we want to show how amazing this team is.”

Across six episodes, audiences are given a rare look into the inner workings of one of our most beloved and exciting national teams, an experience that Sam – despite her initial fears – now sees the great benefit of.

“Honestly, I think the documentary probably brought us a little bit closer,” she says with a smile. “I think it made us realise how important we are to one another.” Director Katie Bender Wynn, herself a former athlete, witnessed first-hand the closeness Sam describes throughout the filmmaking process, which began in the lead-up to the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup.

And she hopes it’s this that audiences walk away with when they immerse themselves in the Matildas’ stories. “I wanted this to be like a coming-of-age story about the future Matildas … making it more of a story about growth and trust and teamwork and the human spirit,” she explains.

“Ultimately, I wanted this story to be about sisterhood. These are a group of women who have really grown up together. They really are family.”

Most of the current squad of Matildas can be split into two categories: Veterans who have grown up alongside each other in the team for up to a decade, and young guns trying to make their mark.

For 20-year-old Mary Fowler, who burst into our consciousness with an impressive debut at just 15, which quickly saw her dubbed our “next Sam Kerr”, the environment built by her predecessors is the key to her handling the pressure as the World Cup draws closer.

“It takes time to build [a positive environment] and I think where we are right now is a really good space,” she says. “When new people come in, we’ve done really well to welcome them and hopefully they feel the same way about that. It’s an environment that everyone can just feel comfortable in.”

As well as the literal mothers who are part of the side, there are a handful of those veterans who see offering mentorship and a motherly kind of support to their rookie counterparts as part of their duty. Proud Noongar woman and Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams, 35, has been with the Matildas since 2005.

She is a figure that many of the young Matildas, including Mary, look to for guidance and even a laugh or two. “I’m really close to Lydia,” Mary says. “I think for a long time I’ve just been able to hang out with her. We have similar personalities and similar interests off the field. She is a goofball. So I do laugh at her a lot.”

Cortnee Vine, 25, and a newer inclusion to the Matildas, similarly praises Lydia’s presence. “I would say, someone who is funny and really caring and loving is Lydia,” she says. “Lydia brings a bit of a mum vibe, I think. And we have a joke with her all the time.”

International games are few and far between across the footballing year and with the limited days they have together, the girls make the most of being in the moment, enjoying each other’s presence and ultimately focusing on the task at hand.

So, when The Weekly tells Lydia how her younger teammates feel about her influence, it’s the first she’s heard of it. And she’s pleasantly surprised. “In camp, we don’t really have deep conversations like that,” Lydia demurs. “So it’s really humbling, and really nice to hear that. That’s kind of what I want to do – help the younger girls coming through and show the culture of what the Matildas is built on and take away a little bit of the stress. It’s heartwarming to see that. Without me really knowing it, it’s paying off in a way.”

Lydia is proud of the success of the Matildas’ culture, which she attributes to the strong relationships she has with all her teammates. “It’s crazy because it’s like we all think the same,” she says. “Someone will say something funny in a meeting – and it’s not funny to anyone else – but all of a sudden everyone does a side eye. Or starts chuckling under their breath. It’s crazy how in sync we are in the team. And it’s really something that when people like Cortnee come in, who’s only been a part of a couple of camps, she’s already fitting in. Once you’re in it, and you accept and embrace it, you’re in.”

This sisterhood is a constant no matter how many changes happen in the Matildas. And that’s something that Lydia sees as vital for the team’s resilience and ability to bounce back after losses. “We’ve had coaches come and go, different kinds of people getting injured, different formations and tactics, but we’ve always stayed together,” she explains. “I think it’s just knowing what it is to build people up and motivate them and take the pressure off their shoulders. [If we lose], it’s no-one’s fault. If something unfortunate happens, it’s no-one’s single job to make sure we’re winning. If we win a game, it’s always together and collective.”

Katrina Gorry has been a mainstay in the green and gold since her debut for the Matildas back in 2012. Nicknamed ‘Mini’ for her small stature, the softly spoken midfielder embodies the ‘family first’ ethos that the national side prides itself on. In the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, while Mini had achieved almost everything a footballer can dream of – playing in the Olympics and a World Cup already – another aspiration she’d always held in her heart became too large to ignore. It was her dream of motherhood.

Single at the time and without her family while living and playing in Norway, Mini decided to go on an IVF journey, solo. Now she has her daughter, Harper. Regularly posting on Instagram doting messages of how lucky she feels to be a mum, that Harper is her “everything” and revealing how special it is to be undertaking this football journey together, Mini says motherhood has changed how she approaches playing.

“I think my game has changed so much,” she says. “I play football because I love it. And when I walk off the pitch, I get to be a mum and I really take nothing off the pitch. I think that’s definitely helped me. Having a child, it puts things into perspective.”

Win, lose or draw, Harper’s smiling face as she greets her mum and aunties – what all the other Matildas are to her – after a match is enough to lift their spirits and shake off any negativity. Mini says her teammates are always offering to babysit Harper while in camp, and dance parties in their hotel rooms are becoming a common occurrence.

In the not-too-distant past, being a mum while juggling any career, let alone one as a professional athlete, seemed impossible. And there’s still a strong social expectation that motherhood heralds the end of an athlete’s playing time. Consider even just last year what tennis legend Serena Williams said about her retirement from sport to focus on her family: “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be [retiring] because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labour of expanding our family.”

Thankfully for the Matildas, their coaching staff, particularly head coach Tony Gustavsson, not only supports it but encourages his players to do both if they wish. As Mini reflects, “For [Tony]\ to be so supportive in that environment, I think it really helps us perform on the field and get to enjoy the family life off the field. I think it’s definitely added a different element into camp. When the kids are walking in the room, I think it makes everyone happy and makes everyone realise that there’s more to life than football.”

Watching Matildas: The World At Our Feet leaves you feeling that our national women’s football team is not only in with a strong chance of being the ones to lift that trophy come August, but perhaps they are destined to do so.

Although mostly unspoken, the weight of expectation on the Matildas to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is surely heavy on their shoulders. It’s one of the largest international sporting events to be hosted at home since the 2000 Olympics. So, how is this football ‘family’ reckoning with that pressure? Does that impact the way they play? And whatever the result, what do they hope is remembered as this generation of the Matildas’ legacy?

The Matildas don’t shy away from the at times disappointing performances they’ve put on in the last couple of years since the announcement that the cup would be held here. But this potential to put doubt in the minds of fans is countered by what is clearly the team’s secret weapon.

Sure, they are captained by arguably the best female footballer in the world, sure you could say there will be a home-ground advantage at play and they’re stacked to the brim with some exciting young talent that feature in the world’s top football leagues across the UK and Europe. But the key to the Matildas’ success lies in their culture.

It’s a culture which was publicly questioned and criticised just a few short years ago, when in 2021 Lisa De Vanna – who played 150 games in the green and gold – went public with concerning allegations of harassment, bullying and abuse. It sparked an investigation from Sport Integrity Australia and headlines claiming that a “toxic culture” was still at play within the Matildas since Lisa’s retirement in 2019.

At the time, the Matildas’ playing group released a statement expressing the hurt they felt in the face of the public questioning of what it’s really like to be in the Matildas. “We all – from our most capped players to our most recently capped – would like to reassure our fans, family and friends that today we have a strong professional, inclusive and supportive culture that does not condone any of the behaviour mentioned,” the statement read.

“We hold this team close to our hearts and for many, this team has been a safe haven. It has given us strength and purpose throughout our careers.” Whether they’ve been forced by public pressure to make changes, or whether the documentary and this story for The Weekly are simply the first time the Matildas have been able to show who they truly are, in 2023 they seem to genuinely represent a culture that we, as Australians, can be proud of.

A culture that puts family at the forefront, that sees players take responsibility for one another’s sense of belonging and self-belief, that celebrates one player’s success as their collective success, and importantly, it’s a culture that can’t be broken.

The state of play off field in the Matildas’ family has also led to their best on the field, right on the eve of this World Cup. Recent appearances have seen them playing their best football, even breaking the English Lionesses 30-game winning streak – a result that Sam Kerr firmly attributes to their off-field camaraderie.

“I think, in the results of late, you kind of see that we feel better than ever,” Sam says firmly. “Yes, on the pitch we feel great, but off the pitch, the team feels close, and the team feels like we’ve got each other’s backs even more.”

This team wants success so badly, not for their own individual joy or sense of accomplishment, but for each other and for the future generations of young Australian women and girls who want to play sport. “The fact that we’re going to have a packed-out stadium … ” Sam’s eyes widen when she realises the enormity of their achievement.

“Women’s football, you know, 20 years ago wasn’t even talked about. So, it’s about making this a memorable moment, no matter what happens on the pitch. It’s like, this is the evolution of women’s sport. And I know that it is going to be a massive moment for everyone watching but for us as a team, and for other female athletes watching, young girls watching, I just want it to be a memorable moment.

“The legacy that we leave, hopefully it will be remembered for 30 or 40 years, because of what we’ve achieved off the pitch by bringing this country, and bringing the whole world to Australia, to watch the Women’s World Cup.”

Stream Matildas: The World At Our Feet now on Disney Plus with a mth-to-mth no lock-in contract. Subscribe here.

The World Cup runs from July 20 to August 20.

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