‘Holding back tears, like, s*** I didn’t make it’: The emotion & angst of World Cup selection

For 23 players there’s unconfined joy; for those who don’t make the squad, emotions are very different. Tom Smithies reports.

As the tears of joy flowed, it was the faces we didn’t see who told the other story of a FIFA Women’s World Cup squad.

For 23 Matildas there was the ecstasy of selection for a home World Cup, with the joy of many of them caught on video for social media. But for half a dozen others there was only the devastation of knowing that they had fallen at the final hurdle.

VISIT KEEPUP’S WOMEN’S WORLD CUP HUB!

SQUAD ANALYSIS: Gustavsson leaves door open for last minute World Cup squad twist after ‘game changer’ gamble

For those who, every four years, are forced to join a select club, membership of the group who were in contention but not chosen for the final 23 is the bitterest pill to swallow. A small number will get the chance to try again at a later World Cup and this time get good news; but in the short term, the disappointment is so raw that some who went through it in the past admit they couldn’t even watch the World Cup in which they might have played.

No wonder Tony Gustavsson called Thursday last week the toughest day of his coaching career: the process of deciding on his 23, and then calling the other six one by one to a room at the team’s resort on the Gold Coast to deliver bad news.

Both Football Australia and the players association have welfare officers in camp to help players come to terms with a uniquely challenging professional blow, with psychologists available through the PFA’s support program.

But still there is no way to sugar coat the bad news, after so many months of sacrifice and application in pursuit of a dream.

“It’s that feeling in your stomach, when your gut drops – a bit like when you are on a rollercoaster,” recalls Ellen Beaumont of the moment she was told she had missed out on selection for the Matildas squad at the 2007 World Cup. “That feeling with adrenalin and gravity. It’s like that.”

Beaumont, who for weeks had been doing double training sessions every day at the Queensland Academy of Sport to try to be fit enough, was called into a room at the QAS by then Matildas boss Tom Sermanni.

“It’s very formal and it’s very nerve wracking because you’re also excited,” Beaumont remembers. “But when he told me that I didn’t make the cut, you just… it’s a hard pill to swallow, like you just feel this big lump in your throat.

“At the same time you’re holding back tears because you’re like, no, don’t cry, like it’s fine. But you know, in that split second, you’re like, ‘S***. I didn’t make it’.”

Ellen Beaumont playing for Brisbane Roar in 2008.

In the end Gustavsson – like all the World Cup coaches – has to make a choice, and each of those excluded has a unique circumstance. Some who have played just a peripheral role in recent camps always knew it was an outside chance; others, like Chloe Logarzo, have their hopes killed by injury.

Either way, the duty of relaying disappointment is an onerous one for the coach. “There’s nothing harder,” says Alen Stajcic whose selections for the Matildas heading to the 2015 World Cup caused headlines, and who is about to go through the same culling process with an extended Philippines squad for the 2023 iteration.

“That’s the hardest thing, being judge, jury and executioner is not pleasant, but it’s part of the job,” he says. “In a sense you’re destroying an individual’s dreams. But the rules are what they are and we can only select 23.”

****

With so much at stake, the players admit the atmosphere had to be a touch bittersweet in the Matildas’ Gold Coast camp, when many are close friends but knew that some had to miss out.

“It definitely was, and I empathise with the girls that didn’t get selected because I’ve experienced that myself in 2019,” admitted Kyah Simon once her inclusion – pending final fitness tests – had been confirmed.

“We’re such a close-knit group and the girls that don’t make it put in just as much work as the girls that get selected.

“They’re making the exact same sacrifices and putting their hearts on the line and to fall short, there’s no worse feeling because I know exactly how that felt for me in 2019.

“So when I saw the girls, you know, upset and crying on the Thursday, when they’ve gotten told, my heart broke. It was a really weird mixed (set of) emotions for me because I obviously made it and then there were certain players that didn’t. Everyone’s emotions were just getting thrown left right and centre on that Thursday.”

That angst is why Stajcic is steeling himself knowing he has to go through it again with the Philippines squad that he has taken to its highest-ever global ranking and now for the first time to a World Cup. Having sought players with Filipino heritage across the world to deepen his talent pool, some are going to miss out.

“The comfort I have is that this team’s gone from having no international experience and hardly ever getting together to a year and a half of intensive training, with matches all around the world,” he says.

“Everyone’s been given an opportunity at various stages throughout that prep and it will come down to a decision of what’s best for the team.

“Ultimately, I’ve never had any other vested interest than trying to win and get the best for the team. So I don’t worry about allegiances or cliques, other things that sometimes come into play. I just pick the players who have earned it in our opinion.”

Former Matildas boss Alen Stajcic will compete at this World Cup with the Philippines.

The cruel thing is the moments that players might have had that are almost a taste of the World Cup, only for it to be taken away from them.

“Even trying on tracksuits was exciting,” recalls Ellen Beaumont who had already played at the U17 World Cup with the Young Matildas in 2004. “Like they get you kitted out in the tracksuits, the jerseys and even the formal wear.

“I remember we had a camp at the AIS and they got all the fancy jackets, I don’t know if it was Marc Jacobs or something like that. As a football player, we weren’t used to wearing nice clothes and dressing up back then. So it built you up towards dreaming of being in that World Cup.

“But you also know you’re a fringe player so in a way you do have more pressure in trying to convince the coach to pick you. You’ve also got the dual role of being a positive support for the team and pushing each other to get the best out of everyone, to have that team cohesion.”

***

For various reasons, Beaumont wants those who missed out this time to see the bigger picture, both in terms of football and in life.

“These are moments that I think as a player make or break you, because some of the girls now that will be cut are still young and they’ll have more opportunities down the track,” she says.

“They’re still important in the team going forward after the World Cup because I’m sure there’s going to be some key retirements that come, those senior girls need a rest.

“At the end of the day, if you’ve given everything, you’ve still got to be proud of yourself, knowing that you’ve put it all out there, you’ve done everything you can do.”

Beaumont had had the presence of mind to ask for feedback from Sermanni on what she could do to improve, but her life would change dramatically and quickly in any case.

“My mum got sick actually in 2008 with a terminal illness, she passed away from cancer in early 2008. So I think around that time (the priority) for me was family.

“(In 2012) I retired because I wanted to go to uni and become a social worker. My mum had died, so life and your perception of things had changed a bit.

“She was only 54 and she had done her nursing degree at age 50. She finished but she didn’t make graduation. It was pretty brutal and all happened pretty quickly.

“That inspired me to go to uni as well and to get that done. I guess I had a different priority after that.

“But in 2007, I just remember watching the World Cup and still feeling part of the team. That’s what the current girls have to remember, to keep their heads up knowing they have all contributed to that journey to the World Cup and helped the team be the best they can be.”