In 2011 there was plenty to cheer about regarding the Matildas and the women's program. Australia made their second quarter finals appearance, achieved their highest ever world ranking (9) and introduced several high class young players to the international scene.
However, prepare yourselves because as it stands now in 2012 Australia will drop out of the Top 10, and possibly the Top 20, of the women's game. It will be through no fault of the players but because the complicated FIFA rankings system is predicated on, amongst many things, who you play and how often you play. On the horizon currently is zilch, nothing, nada. Not even an annual beating of New Zealand (sorry NZ friends).
So at this time, it is vital for the women's game that we make a decision regarding what our ambitions are as a country. Are we a country that will be gunning for the Top 5 in the world featuring in semi-finals and finals of the World Cup or are we happy to float around the Top 10 – 20 and making the quarter-finals. It is that ambition that will dictate the resource requirements.
If it is the latter and that is our ceiling, well it needs to be communicated to the fans, those in the elite pathway and the parents of the six year olds taking up this sport.
However, if it is the former, and you can't imagine how much I hope it is, then we have some work to do in various areas in particular resources. Funding is, dare I say it, fundamental.
Barring maybe Brazil, the top echelon of the game could be viewed as a table of which countries most fund their women's programs. France realised this and prior to the World Cup they stepped it up and the result was a fourth place in the World Cup and some stunning football.
For many reasons, the perfect case study for Australia is Japan. The Japanese Women's World Cup win was no fluke. That was the culmination of a 10 year program and significant resources.
Late last year I spoke with former US coach and current member of the FIFA Technical Committee April Heinrichs about the women's football internationally and Australia in particular (full interview coming soon). Heinrichs also spoke about the warning signs and echoed my concerns.
"I think it seems to me that a country like Australia is considerably dependent on the resources that are put in and the preparation that is put in well in advance."
"It sounds like JIT [Just in Time] planning occurs and that is just not good enough anymore."
"You have got to have a 4 to 10 year plan in place and you have got be using and working with players on a regular basis."
"Japan didn’t evolve with their sophistication on the ball with JIT planning. They have had a long term plan and their federation has put resources to them."
Japan head to the US every year to play all the US Women's teams from U15s up. In the lead up to the World Cup they had a full schedule. They played the Bicentennial Women's Cup in Chile where some of the teams included Denmark, Colombia, Argentina. Then they took on the USA, Norway, Finland and Sweden in the Algarve Cup before finishing their preparation with a two game series against the US in the US. And all of that was just last year. With that comprehensive a preparation, is it any wonder they finished World Champions!
Asia is second to Europe in terms of confederation competitiveness. There is Japan (3), DPR Korea (9), Australia (10), South Korea (16) and China (18) all in the top 20 and vying for limited World Cup allocations. Further to that, several in Asia are now heavily investing in their women's programs. Thailand, Vietnam, Chinese Taipai and Myanmar are just a couple in the last few years whose investments are slowly but surely bearing fruit.
For the those looking, we saw the warning flag raised in 2011 in relation to the future of the Matildas if we don't properly plan, structure and resource the women's program. Yes we didn’t make the Olympics, however the major concern is the fact that the U19s and U17s once again did not qualify for their respective World Cups.
Tom Sermanni spoke about the (watch here) about the resources various Asian countries are pouring into their national programs in late 2011.
"You lose track in Asia very, very quickly if we don't put resources into development," said Sermanni.
If we are not careful, there could come a time when we may be competing with Thailand, Vietnam and Chinese Taipei instead of the Japan, China and the Koreas.
Heinrichs puts it out there more succinctly.
"Long term planning and commitment to resources is the only thing that is going to get Australia over the hump."
"If they don't get over the hump, they can go into the black hole of never being able to be competitive again. Because other Asian countries are going to emerge and being in Asia was a huge leap to begin with."
"I would worry for you if you wouldn't start putting resources to your game because your better performances might behind you."
Scared yet? I know I was. So what needs to be done? What is realistically possible?