Matildas' future starts now: What can they learn from Olympic Games

Among the long-range screamers and sensational volleys that are the Matildas' best goals of the past decade, there was a tap-in.

Of course, "tap-in" doesn't begin to do this goal justice.

You might remember it for its celebration: Kyah Simon, arms outstretched in the rain, navy-blue jersey, yellow collar.

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You might remember it more for its context: Moncton, Canada; the 80th minute, after Lisa De Vanna's shot had been parried into the path of Simon, whose goal sealed Australia passage to the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup.

The 1-0 victory over Brazil marked the first time Australia had won a knockout game at the World Cup.

The Matildas have since progressed out of the group at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and at the 2019 World Cup in France; both times they fell at the first knockout hurdle.

Before the Matildas' quarterfinal against Team GB at Tokyo 2020, Simon's goal stood alone. A moment. A highlight.

After 120 minutes, she no longer stood alone.

Sam Kerr provided another moment.

Emily van Egmond's long ball floated to a group of players in the box; Alanna Kennedy, an obvious aerial threat who had already scored with her head, received attention, but Kerr was lurking just behind her.

Kerr controlled the ball with her chest and wound up to shoot. But she faked, hopped on one leg to reset, and struck the ball cleanly.

The goal got Australia to extra-time and allowed for a flurry of other moments: Teagan Micah's penalty save; Mary Fowler's beaming face after she put Australia ahead; and of course, not content with only one defining moment, Kerr scored again.

There was a new instantly iconic image to sit alongside that of Simon from 2015.

With Fowler and Emily Gielnik either side of her, Kerr's mouth's wide open in a scream. It's fierce and visceral. You feel it through the screen.

The win was the Matildas' first past the group stage at the Olympics, and it saw them progress further than most people had imagined. It gave the team two cracks at a medal.

However, just like in 2015, the Matildas exited a tournament with a breakthrough win under their belts but, ultimately, they emerged empty handed.

Steph Catley was there in 2015, and again in the thick of the action in 2021. Her comments after the losses to Sweden in the semifinals and the United States in the bronze medal match have been telling.

"The football we're playing right now is incredible," Catley said after the defeat by Sweden.

"I'm so proud of the girls and their effort, the way that we go about it and the way that we're playing.

"I've never had this feeling before in terms of belief and genuinely thinking we are capable of beating anyone on any given day."

After the 4-3 loss to the USWNT, Catley contextualised the tournament for the team.

"But from where we've come in the last two or so months, starting from scratch, basically, with [coach] Tony [Gustavsson] coming in and all of us not being together for over a year," she said.

"You can't ask for more difficult circumstances than that, and I think the heart that we showed in this tournament and the way we came together in the way we played for each other. And by the time we got to these last few games, we're all completely on the same page and playing the football that we know we can play.

"If this is just what we can do in a couple of months together, leading to the World Cup in another major tournament coming up, I can't wait to see what we can do in those moments."

The team and the players feel as though they are just getting started, a sentiment shared by many. But it is also a familiar feeling. Once again, the Matildas feel as though they are on the precipice of something. Just as they did after the 2015 World Cup.

This feeling of similarity isn't a second chance to solve the same set of problems that manifested after Canada 2015. Barring an unfathomably unbelievable dose of déjà vu, the team won't have to strike for better pay and conditions. And it won't be thrust into uncertainty and turmoil before a major tournament.

The hope is that the team's return to this intangible place follows a different path forward. And that the team will take everything it has learned during the years since Moncton to go further, finish higher, and do better.

The players will utilise the strength and resilience gained from the strike action, be fuelled by the adoration of a public that has turned up and tuned in in record numbers, feel supported by the secured equal pay deal, and be better equipped to deal with adversity after 2019 and 2020.

The hope is that the sum of these experiences will produce something greater than their individual joy or heartache.

The on-field product will come. And we know it will because we watched it in Tokyo. First in glimpses, then in bursts and fragments, sometimes even proper chunks.

Pre-tournament expectations weren't high -- the focus was firmly on the future -- but the team balanced the long game with the short, continuing preparations for 2023 while recording a best Olympic result.

The minutes put into new players provide grounds for excitement; and the use of a fluid backline worked more times than it didn't, highlighting the team's strength -- speedy wide players -- in order to minimise a weak spot created by the lack of midfielders.

Talent ID camps and the changing face of the W-League mean the depth problem that has plagued Australia for years is being addressed, and the AFC Women's Asian Cup at the start of 2022 provides the Matildas with another chance to blood the youngsters, to get things right, to nail the dress rehearsal.

Everything is set so this team, long-earmarked for its potential, can realise it. In less than two years' time, the hope is that the Matildas will finish a major tournament not only with a Simon moment or a Kerr one, but with an army of fans, just as many moments, and a trophy to boot.