A calamitous early exit could spell the end of Tony Gustavsson’s Matildas tenure

It was a characteristically light-hearted remark from the ever-affable Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson. “After tomorrow, I’m either going to be a phenomenal coach or the worst coach that has ever coached the Matildas,” the Swede said in jest on the eve of the Women’s World Cup.

A week and a half later, with Australia’s campaign hanging by a thread, needing to beat Olympic champions Canada on Monday to stay in the tournament, Gustavsson may come to rue those words.

If the Matildas fail to progress past the group stage at this much-anticipated home World Cup, it would represent a monumental failure for Gustavsson. Excuses would be easy to come by – the pressure of a home tournament, the loss of captain Sam Kerr to a calf injury, concussion-induced absences for Mary Fowler and Aivi Luik, a moderately difficult group. But unless the Matildas beat Canada (or draw and get lucky with other permutations), they will exit at the group stage for the first time since 2003. Those factors might explain, but they will certainly not excuse.

Related: How Australia can advance to the round of 16: Matildas’ Women’s World Cup 2023 scenarios

An obituary for Gustavsson’s tenure with the Matildas is as yet premature. But failure on Monday will surely spell the beginning of the end for the Swede’s time in Australia. His contract runs until the Paris Olympics, but it is hard to see how Gustavsson could survive such a calamitous early World Cup exit. His legacy, his future, are in the balance.

Sport, perhaps uniquely among professions, is brutal like this. Gustavsson has done much good work since joining the national team in late 2020. By ushering through a new generation of talent, the coach has begun a transition that will hopefully see the team evolve from golden generation to future generation without undue turbulence. He has also, by all accounts, laid down frameworks that will endure beyond his tenure.

All of that will count for nothing if the Matildas cannot qualify for the round of 16 on Monday. That is the hard truth, the cruelty of an endeavour where so much can turn on a blade of grass or a millisecond of movement. But Gustavsson is an experienced coach and he knew the scale of the task ahead of him when he joined the Matildas. That task, first and foremost, was to run deep in this home World Cup. So far, it has not looked promising.

On one view, it has been a typical tournament start from the Matildas – who have now lost in four consecutive World Cup group stages, then recovered to progress in the last three. But it has been the nature of the performances, as much as the loss to Nigeria, that has troubled Australian fans. The opening night win over Ireland was fortunate – attacking opportunities went begging and the Irish, on debut, could have readily equalised later in the match.

Related: Matildas face date with destiny after fluffing their lines against Nigeria | Kieran Pender

On Thursday, Nigeria tore apart the Matildas in the second half. And yet Gustavsson stood on the sideline, seemingly stunned. After Nigerian substitutes had been instrumental in seizing the advantage, the Australian boss was frozen by inaction. The late introduction of Alex Chidiac made an impact, but 20 minutes too late. Bringing on Clare Polkinghorne and moving central defender Alanna Kennedy up front was a desperate last roll of the dice.

The post-mortem, if it comes, will require hard questions about game management and squad selection. Despite being two goals down, Gustavsson elected against a final substitution. Chasing the game, he had no attacking cards left to play – with Kerr and Fowler out and Kyah Simon still recovering from a long-term ACL injury. Gustavsson has repeatedly defended Simon’s inclusion, citing her positive impact on team culture. But the veteran could have been around the team without being in the squad.

If Simon was never going to be fit to play in the group stage, was it wise to select her in the first place? And when Kerr went down with her calf injury, the Matildas could still have swapped out Simon – under Fifa rules that permit injury changes until 24 hours out. Was it negligent to double-down, when a concussion – an any other mishap – could leave the team with only one striker?

Tony Gustavsson throws his head back and looks to the sky as he paces the sideline of the Matildas game against Nigeria

It remains possible that the Nigeria defeat will come to represent nothing more than a blip on Gustavsson’s road to greatness. Photograph: Future Publishing/Getty Images

Heading into the tournament, fervent fans and seasoned analysts alike were tipping the Matildas to go deep. Led by one of the best players in the world in Kerr, and having beaten a number of heavyweight teams in recent months, the prospect of an home World Cup win seemed tantalisingly close. Bad memories of heavy losses early during the Gustavsson era, or the premature exit at the Asian Cup, had been banished.

There is still time for Gustavsson to stake his claim to being a phenomenal coach. Win on Monday and the turbulent group stage will be forgotten, all eyes shifting to a blockbuster round of 16 clash. There remains every possibility that the Nigeria defeat will come to represent nothing more than a momentary blip on the road to greatness. But those 90 minutes in Melbourne may yet determine Gustavsson’s legacy.

The Australians’ World Cup training base, at the Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre in Brisbane, is situated opposite a cemetery. If Australia lose to Canada, we might remember this location – where Kerr injured her calf, where Fowler and Luik were concussed – as the place where the Matildas’ World Cup dreams were buried. Gustavsson can only hope the metaphorical headstone does not remember him with his own words: “the worst coach that has ever coached the Matildas.”

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