When the CommBank ParaMatildas set out to participate in the first-ever IFCPF Women’s World Cup in 2022, they weren’t sure what would happen.
After all, this was a squad that was launched only nine weeks earlier. They had never played a competitive game together. They were heading into the great unknown – both in terms of their own game, and their opposition.
“I don’t think we had very high expectations,” Eloise Northam explained, who wore the captain’s armband for the final in Spain. “I think we were just there to have fun and prove to ourselves that we are good footballers.”
They more than proved that they were good footballers, defeating the Netherlands 12-0 in their first-ever game, with Georgia Beikoff scoring six. The CommBank ParaMatildas backed it up with a 4-0 win over Japan, and an 11-0 win over Spain, before they lined up to play the tournament favourites – USA.
Fatigue had begun to set in. After all, this was their fourth game in five days. This kind of tournament football was completely new to them. They were playing a United States side that had been together for much longer, who had done it all and were extremely well prepared. USA won 4-0.
They had three days to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and prepare for the final against the same opponents on Tuesday, May 17.
“We had nothing to lose,” explained head coach Kelly Stirton. “We were in as the underdogs.”
“We knew as a team, and a cohort, and coaching staff and athletes that we could give more, we could give them a run for their money and shake them in their boots,” remembered goalkeeper Katelyn Smith. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
Fans will recall the game as a dramatic, tension-filled clash that could have gone either way. Eloise Northam opened the scoring for Australia, a shot from well inside her own half finding its way into the back of the net. The United States hit back with two goals in the second half, before changing goalkeepers. The CommBank ParaMatildas refused to give up.
“They took forever,” Smith laughed, when recalling the goalkeeper substitution. “I was like, no. And I was at that point where I was so tired, so fatigued. I was just like, you know, I’m just going to hit it and see how it goes.”
It went perfectly - the goalkeeper scoring from distance to make it 2-2 - and the game was sent into extra time.
The United States went on to win 4-2 in extra time. Despite the loss, it was a game that staff and players were extremely proud of, particularly for the way that they bounced back after the group-stage defeat.
It was particularly impressive given what was going on behind the scenes.
The program was new. The entire player pool at the time numbered only twelve people. The task for Kelly Stirton and her coaching staff was vast. The first goal was to provide a positive environment to help players show the world what they could do with a ball at their feet. However, in tournament mode, with games coming thick and fast, they also had to make difficult decisions on their starting lineups and squad rotation.
"We had six weeks to prepare for the tournament," Stirton explained. "We had multiple injuries, even going into that game [the final] with people who weren't 100%. But we really had no option but to play them."
What were those injuries? Well, picture this - three players in a moon boot, and one player with a suspected dislocated back, two days out from a final. Players were exhausted, the toll of the heavy tournament schedule catching up to them. The heat of Spain, radiating off the Astroturf pitches, was incredibly draining.
Despite all that, despite the pain and the fatigue - they were in a contest with the tournament favourites right up until the final whistle.
"After the [group stage] America game, we all had moon boots, we all had TENS machines looking like robots walking around, trying to recover," Northam recalled. "It was very hard but the girls did amazing. We really proved ourselves."
Northam was injured herself - she had torn her lisfranc ligament in her foot. She was not meant to play in the first game against USA but battled on to play in the second half, and then started the final, opening the scoring in the first half.
"When it got to extra time, I think I was ready to die," she joked. "I was so exhausted my body just kind of started shutting down. It was definitely a devastating loss... but to prove that we could do that and still come out ranked number one in the world is insane."
Georgia Beikoff was one of the players carrying an injury. She explained that she went into a "neuro crisis," meaning that her legs were acting as if she was carrying around a dead weight.
"If you go back and see the footage, when it was drinks break, I was pacing around," she remembered. "Kat, our media lady, she was calling out from the sideline, going 'Don't you give up now! Don't you give up!' Kelly was yelling at me, saying 'Don't you give up!' and I was thinking, 'as if I'm going to give up!'"
"This is the thing, those moments of high pressure and when you're in pain... I remember Nicole [Christodoulou], and I'll never forget this, I think it was half-time. She was giving my leg a bit of a release because I was in so much pain and she said, 'Don't you ever forget what you were thinking when you were six years old.'"
"Because this is what I was literally dreaming and thinking about - will there be a day in my lifetime where I'll be able to play football in the green and gold? That would be incredible, let alone playing in a World Cup final. So the emotions were running very high."
She joked that you could probably "stick a fork" in Smith and that she and Northam were wearing moon boots on the same foot on the plane ride home.
"I think that's what makes para football so exciting because there's just so many more layers, I think," Beikoff said. "The Matildas have that saying, 'Never Say Die'. We very much resonate with that catchphrase."
Nicole Christodoulou remembers that moment from the bench as one that was vital to the closeness of the team.
"We stood by each other, we supported each other," she explained. "The players on the bench - which included me - tried to give the players on the field confidence to remind them why they were here, what they worked so hard for."
"We need to push each other, we're trying to support each other as best as we can. because we're a team and when we're out there, we're perform as one. We're not five individual players. We are one team. We need to help each other to get there."
Now, the CommBank ParaMatildas are preparing to play their second-ever final. They will face off against Japan in the IFCPF Asia Oceania Championships final, at the Home of the Matildas in Melbourne.
The player pool has grown hugely since that World Cup, with players such as Carly Salmon and Tamsin Colley being inspired by their now teammates to take up para football for themselves.
The message from the players is clear - get out and support them as they look to lift their first-ever piece of silverware.
"We want to deliver a message of being undefeated, and just keep pushing forward to achieve your goals because it's so close," Christodoulou said.
Northam built on her words. "We want the younger generation out there to know there's a pathway for them, and to be able to see that is amazing," she explained.
IFCPF World Cup 2022 goalkeeper of the tournament, Katelyn Smith, finished with a call to action from Australian football fans.
"Come down and support us and if you can't come, watch us on SBS on Demand. You won't regret it."