Melissa Barbieri: My World Cup verdict & a call to Aussie football’s ‘lost generation’

In her closing World Cup column for KEEPUP, Matildas legend Melissa Barbieri delivers her final verdict on the tournament, identifying the Matilda whose journey A-Leagues stars should be studying & delivering a call to a ‘lost generation’.

The world of football witnessed a seismic shift unfolding in Australia, and the Matildas were at the heart of it.

For some, it was a long-awaited prophecy come true, while for others, it was a surprising awakening to the prowess of the women’s game. As the tournament unfolded, Australia found itself at the epicentre of a footballing and sporting revolution, and the impact rippled far beyond the pitch.

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From the moment the first whistle blew, it was clear that this World Cup was destined to be bigger, bolder, and more transformative than ever before.

For many football enthusiasts, the sheer magnitude of the event was hard to fathom, in a country that is not always renowned as a football country or as a traditional powerhouse like Germany or France, who hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2011 and 2019 respectively.

What set this World Cup apart was its ability to captivate hearts and minds beyond the usual sports enthusiasts. Women who had never before considered themselves fans found themselves engrossed in the drama.

“I don’t even like sports,” some declared, yet there they were screaming their lungs out, riding every Matildas shot, tackle and goal.

Heartbreak is part of the World Cup script. Australia’s defeat to Nigeria seemed catastrophic at the time. It later showed setbacks are sometimes required, and I have no doubt that elevated the Canada triumph, which was my Matildas highlight.

The quarterfinal penalty shootout win over France was immense and dramatic, with Mackenzie Arnold and Cortnee Vine elevated to national heroes, alongside the usual suspects.  

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The win against Canada that resounded the loudest, as it was a statement of resilience, intent and dominance against a formidable opponent that we have often struggled to break down. 

There was so much at stake, but that reflected the mentality of the team, and the players deserve credit for standing up in that big moment, with their World Cup on the line. Group stage elimination would’ve been disastrous and the fallout would’ve been significant.

That seems like such a long time ago, so fine are the margins.

In my mind, even if the Matildas lost in the quarterfinals, they would have been hailed as heroes regardless. They inspired the nation.

The individual and collective impact on the Matildas is profound. 

A number of players would not have experienced this level of professionalism before, and even those who didn’t play many minutes will be driven on to bigger and better things.

Agents would have been doing their thing behind the scenes, and I hope the girls cash in, for many who may not have been on lucrative contracts now find themselves in the shop window.

Clare Hunt is in that category and she was a standout for mine with her poised performances.

Her journey was one of resilience, overcoming setbacks and serious injury after serious injury. I’m sure there would’ve been times she may have considered, or was told to consider, ‘getting a real job’. 

She can now make the most of it, having proved her talents on the world stage.

Kyra Cooney-Cross, though younger, was further in her Matildas journey when the World Cup kicked off. But she has taken herself to another level, and I can see her becoming a Matildas leader in the foreseeable future. She has confidence on the ball, faces forward and bounced back from every individual and team setback.

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Her journey is worth studying for up and coming Liberty A-League players. She refused to go overseas too early, laying solid foundations here before going abroad, and Cooney-Cross is better for it.

The bench could have been used more, and the one I would’ve liked to have seen feature was Clare Wheeler. She is a number six like Mini (Katrina Gorry) but an out and out six, where Gorry evolved into one.

Nigeria almost inflicted another upset, on England, and that game showcased the rapid global growth of the women’s game, particularly in developing countries.

The secret to Nigeria’s success is that many of them are playing abroad, in Europe’s big leagues and the clubs that are investing big time in the women’s game, such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus, are aiding the wider development of women’s football.

I believe the 2023/24 Liberty A-League, or A-League Women’s season, will receive a shot in the arm off the back of the past month, once it kicks off on October 14.

It’s great to see the season brought forward to capitalise on the Matildas and World Cup momentum, and I hope to be a part of it, after an enjoyable and successful season at Melbourne City.

The Liberty A-League did not always get a mention when the Matildas and the World Cup was discussed, but it will be the key if the Matildas are to maintain these standards and push for a World Cup title or Olympic gold.

I want to put the call out to all football fans and in particular the women that contacted me during the World Cup and admitted that they had lost touch with the game.

I call on the generation of footballers who’ve been lost to the game.

This is the time to return. It’s time to start backing the game and turning up.

Not only attending games alone, but bringing family and friends. Put your hand up for coaching roles, get involved at grassroots level.

Trust me, once you get involved, you’ll realise the feelings are still there and they don’t change.

It’s still the same football community, only bigger. It’s still the game you love. And you don’t need to play or officially be involved at the highest level to connect.

We want record crowds this Liberty A-League season, and I welcome the bold move to play the opening round games in bigger stadiums, headlined by a derby at Allianz Stadium, between Sydney FC and Western Sydney. Cortnee Vine will walk out on to the pitch as a genuine Australian star.

I realise playing at bigger stadiums comes with bigger costs and bigger risks, but I’m confident fans, commercial partners and governments will follow.

Off the pitch, it would be great to see the continued media coverage of football.

Previews, game reports, highlights, I hope they all continue to make the news reels. People need to see it, need to know. 

AFL and the other sports are capitalising, and I’m delighted that it’s had a great impact for women’s sport. 

But it is frustrating that other sports are standing to benefit more from this tournament than football. How does that happen?

We just want equitable funding. Proportionate to our participation. Invest in football and women’s football – grassroots, A-Leagues and national teams – and this is what we can deliver.

We won’t be hosting another Women’s World Cup anytime soon, although there is talk Australia will launch a bid for the 2034 Men’s World Cup. But we can replicate the amazing scenes of the past month if either the Matildas or Socceroos get to a World Cup semi-final or better still, final. And win it.

For that to happen, we need investment.

This was football’s event and the Liberty A-League is the competition that deserves the genuine uplift in publicity and funding. The discrepancy between us and other sports is quite simply overwhelming.