2017 was set to be a big year for the youth representative teams with both in action in the Asian championships – tournaments which doubled as qualifiers for the FIFA U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups..
First up were the Junior Matildas in the AFC U16 Championships. Placed in a tough group that included eventual winners DPR Korea, Japan and Bangladesh, it was always going to be a difficult task for the U17 side to progress out of the group.
A first up 5-0 loss to Japan was followed up by a 7-0 loss to DPR Korea. The final match saw the Junior Matildas finish the tournament on a positive note with a 3-2 win over Bangladesh with goals from Laura Hughes, Kyra Cross-Cooney and Sofia Sakalis.
Less than a month later it was the Young Matildas’ turn to attempt to break a 12 year drought. The U20 side had been provided with more preparation than the U17 team with internationals against Canada and the United States as well as regular camps.
Early on it looked like it may pay off with Australia defeating Korea Republic in the opening match of Group B thanks to goals from Remy Siemsen and Princess Ibini and some goalkeeping heroics from Jada Whyman.
The second match against eventual champions Japan also started positively with Siemsen opening the scoring to give Australia a 1-0 lead at the break. However, the Young Nadeshiko demonstrated their class in the second half to overrun the Young Matildas 5-1.
Progression from the group was still in Australia’s control in the final group match against Vietnam. An Alex Chidiac hattrick and goals from Siemsen and Rachel Lowe ensured the Young Matildas would get a shot at France 2018.
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The semi final against DPR Korea saw coach Gary van Egmond take a calculated gamble and rest many of starting XI. Led by their star striker and 2017 AFC Player of the Year nominee Sung Hyang-sim, DPR Korea comfortably accounted for Australia 3-0.
With a double chance to quality for France 2018, the Young Matildas took on China PR – coached by former Matildas head coach Hesterine de Reus. However, in the third place playoff, Australia was all out of steam falling to the Steel Roses 3-0.
Despite some promising signs, both campaigns ultimately ended in disappointment. It also sparked a discussion about development in Australia.
While the Matildas are currently flying high, there is a concern about the pipeline for future players, particularly in light of several nations – Japan, the Koreas, China, Netherlands, Spain – around the world stepping up their youth development.
Several players in both the Junior and Young Matildas displayed that they have potential to be future Matildas but in the past decade or so there has been a slow erosion of the high performance pathway.
Australia is now in a race against time to rebuild them to a level that will allow them to compete long after the current Matildas have retired.