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HomeNewsTony Gustavsson cements his place in Matildas history – DW – 08/16/2023

Tony Gustavsson cements his place in Matildas history – DW – 08/16/2023

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The many faces of Tony Gustavsson tell the story of a football match better than any match commentator. He rides the highs with pure joy and the lows hit him like a brick to the face.

The Swede is not just a coach for the Matildas; he’s their biggest fan, a fervent motivator, a human being who allows his players to be themselves.

Gustavsson has a quirky streak to him, he’s a people person who wants to be liked. Thoughtful, courteous and fiercely loyal to his players.

“He’s so passionate and he loves this team like his family. I’ve never seen anything like it from a coach, he genuinely feels everything that we feel,” vice-captain Steph Catley told DW.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him, he’s been incredible. He’s led us brilliantly, led us bravely and just believed in us from the very beginning.”

Selfless and humble can be added to the 50-year-old’s list of traits. He’s often repeated that he’s simply a cog within a bigger team.

When DW asked him earlier in the tournament whether he was bothered that the players get all the plaudits when Australia wins, while he takes the flak when they lose, he was resolute.

“I can take the hits. The role of any coach is to take the hits when the team has them,” he said. “Nothing is about me, it’s all about the players. I will always be there to protect them, whatever they need. It’s my job.”

Passion, love and joy

Gustavsson entered Australian football in September 2020, his first head coaching gig in international football after being an assistant under Jill Ellis when she led the United States to the 2015 and 2019 World Cup titles.

Tony Gustavsson
Tony Gustavsson won the 2015 and 2019 World Cups as the USA’s assistant coachImage: Simon Hastegard/Bildbyran/IMAGO

In his first press conference a head coach of Australia, Gustavsson said “passion, love and joy” fueled his football journey and he targeted World Cup glory even then, saying “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was possible.”

The Matildas ultimately fell short of that dream, losing 3-1 to England in the semifinal, but their performances, attitude and relatability have elevated football’s standing in the country.

On the pitch, Gustavsson addressed a dearth of squad depth, a somewhat fractured team culture and underperformance against the world’s best.

Shaky start and constant scrutiny

Gustavsson mapped out an ambitious plan that held risks and opened the coach and the team up to brutal scrutiny. He insisted that the Matildas had to test themselves against the world’s best to create a competitive environment within the squad.

This resulted in some ugly results, like when inexperienced side was thrashed 7-0 by Spain in June 2022. That followed a disastrous Asian Cup campaign in January, when Australia were knocked out in the quarterfinals of a tournament they expected to win.

 Sam Kerr taking a shot
Even Sam Kerr’s inclusion in the starting 11 wasn’t enough to lift Gustavsson’s Matildas past EnglandImage: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

“Everyone’s gotten behind him. And over the last couple of years we’ve had our ups and down, but we kind of peaked at the right time [for the World Cup],” Australia forward Mary Fowler said.

“It’s nice to see how far the team’s come, we have a lot to be proud of.”

The high-octane, attack-minded football Gustavsson promised didn’t always happen, most recently in an underwhelming first half against England, but he did give the team a platform to foster an unwavering team spirit.

“We’ve had coaches in the past who haven’t really understood our passion and our love for this team. And that our Australian culture is a big part of what we do out on the field and they’ve kind of tried to change us,” Catley said.

“He came in and adopted who we were as people and players and embraced it and loved it. He bought into what we were doing and (we) then brought in his ideas and his football brain. He’s been awesome.”

The likes of Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross and Clare Hunt were blooded into the squad under Gustavsson and the trio are expected to form the spine of the team for the next decade.

Riding the highs and lows

Gustavsson has never really had it easy with the Australian public and press. He’s ridden through a fair share of calls for his head, most recently after the 3-2 loss to Nigeria in the group stages.

Defensive fragility, poor game management, and a lack of a meaningful Plan B were the oft-repeated criticisms, and not without reason.

He was handed the keys to a home World Cup, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australian football. He would have rightly been pilloried for an early exit, but he leaves the tournament having played a major role in this team’s legacy.

He delivered on many promises – mainly increasing the Matildas’ player pool, getting more talented youngsters their first caps, and making Australia competitive against the best. The Australians beat England, France, Spain and Sweden in the seven months leading up to the World Cup.

Tony Gustavsson clapping on the touchline
Tony Gustavsson is an animated figure on the touchlineImage: Dean Lewins/AAP/IMAGO

Now, the onus is on the administrators, the Australian government and the corporate world to back up these performances on the pitch, and help ensure the Matildas’ on-field legacy is matched by meaningful change off it.

“I’ve said before it’s bigger than 90 minutes of football. It’s emotional to sit here and talk about when we’ve lost a semifinal. I hate to lose,” Gustavsson said after the England loss.

“But hopefully we won something else. We won the heart and passion for this game in this country. This is not the end of something, it needs to be the start of something.

“We have to keep working and growing the game together. Let’s invest more and be genuine contenders for medals and tournaments moving forward.”

‘One day better’

Gustavsson loves referencing inspirational quotes and sage pieces of advice from former mentors. But his personal mantra is his most repeated: “one day better.”

“I want to get better every day, not just one day older. I sit here one day older, but hopefully one day better as well,” he said.

He leaves the World Cup having taken charge of 41 matches, with 19 wins, 6 draws and 16 losses. All13 of those victories came in the last 16 games.

His relentless quest for self-improvement has rubbed off on his players. The team epitomizes everything Australians love and respect in sporting teams: a never-say-die attitude, a willingness to do whatever it takes and, most importantly, an ability to beat the best.

The Matildas are the only team, and Tony Gustavsson the only coach, to defeat Sarina Wiegman’s England. Despite falling to them at the World Cup, Gustavsson can be assured of a lasting legacy in Australian football. And he may get a chance for revenge at the Paris Olympics next summer.

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