The hidden ‘genius’ of Kyra Cooney-Cross – and why it will be vital against England

At 21, the midfielder already has a special trait that will help her succeed at the highest level, writes Taryn Heddo

How do you define bravery in football?

The penalty shootout – with all of its 20 shots, the most in World Cup history – is what will be remembered most from Australia’s historic quarter-final victory over France. People will remember the bravery to take a penalty. The bravery to convert. The bravery to keep focused, even after missing one of your own.

But almost forgotten in the tension of the final moments was the 120 minutes of football that happened beforehand. There was a game before the shootout and it was every bit as topsy-turvy, dramatic and tense as what came after.

France dominated, then Australia dominated. It was an arm wrestle ready to be won and lost at any second. Every player on the pitch knew that they could become a national hero. Every player knew that they could become the villain.

It’s a cliche in football to say that knock-out games are often cagey affairs. Players become more concerned with preventing mistakes than creating opportunities. They tighten up. It’s all so human.

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Imagine then, under that kind of pressure, taking the ball in midfield. You’re being pressed by three French players, who will have a clean break if you lose it. You’re 21 years of age, at your first World Cup. You’re carrying a slight injury after contact early in the first half. Would you take the safest possible option to save yourself the risk? Or would you turn, weaving, ducking, creating an opportunity of your own?

Risk vs reward – on the biggest stage

The genius of Kyra Cooney-Cross is not just her ability to pick a pass. It’s not just her growing maturity off the ball, her work rate or defensive awareness. It’s this mindset, this courage, that sets her up for success.

Take the 21st minute for example. Cooney-Cross received the ball and was immediately pressed by Grace Geyoro and Eugenie Le Sommer. If she had lost the ball, Kadidiatou Diani lay in wait to have a clear run at goal. Many players would have bailed, taken the safe option and played back to their central defender.

Not so this time. Barely 10 minutes after copping a painful knock to the ankle, the 21-year-old spun, played through the onrushing players, and found Mary Fowler. The opportunity petered out but it was an example of what the midfielder is capable of. If she got it slightly wrong, the Matildas were in trouble. She did not get it wrong.

She wasn’t the only one to take risks on the ball. Fowler did so herself on several occasions, as did Steph Catley at left-back. Here’s the thing – it does go wrong, sometimes. It just does. Any one of these instances could have been the decisive one. It wasn’t, and we had a penalty shootout for the ages instead.

Looking ahead

Tony Gustavsson said before the tournament that his team would be an attacking one, always on the front foot. That ultimately, we may concede goals this way, but we would simply score more than the opposition. It seems a little perverse to say that given his side now has four clean sheets in five games – but it is these kinds of risks that give the team its identity.

This was the kind of thing that the Matildas were not doing in the first two games of the tournament. Rather than try to beat the press centrally, we were reverting to long diagonals and crosses in search of penetration. Sure, there’s less chance an individual player will leave with egg on their face, but there’s also less chance to create the opportunities that will make a team successful.

We could talk of the pressure they’ll face in the semi-final against England but it’s fair to say that, after France, any mental demons will not loom as large. Can it get much bigger than a 20-shot penalty shootout in front of an audience only eclipsed by Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000? Probably not much, and that holds the team in great stead.

The challenge will come if the team finds itself behind. That has only happened once in this tournament, against Nigeria. Gustavsson’s solution was to put Alanna Kennedy as a central striker alongside Emily van Egmond and spam crosses. It didn’t work against Nigeria, and it won’t work against England.

In order to succeed against the European champions – and whoever comes next – the Matildas must continue to be brave. Brave to take penalties, when required, sure. Brave to perform in front of the entire country, of course. But also brave to take risks, to keep the ball at their feet and let magic happen. Brave to beat three players on the dribble, knowing that if you don’t, you’re gifting them an opportunity. Brave to let the full extent of your skills show.

It’s been a spectacular journey to get this far. The team has passed every hurdle – and there have been a few, let’s not forget – with flying colours. 25 million Australians will be willing them over the line against England. A lot has to go right. But if they are brave, anything is possible.

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