Australia's long wait to host international football again is set to end, with rising vaccination rates enabling New South Wales authorities and Football Australia to formalise procedures that will allow the Matildas to play Brazil in Sydney in October.
In a further boost for the country's national teams, the "comprehensive quarantine management plan" agreement also sets the table for the Socceroos to host Saudi Arabia in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying match and for the Matildas to play Women's World Cup champions the United States in November. As part of its reopening road-map, NSW is projected to fully vaccinate at least 70% of its population aged 16 years and older against COVID-19 in early October, and 80% later that month.
The agreed plan for the two games against Brazil will see overseas-based players and staff arrive in Australia, play the fixtures on Oct. 23 and 26, and, if needed, depart within the nine-day FIFA international window; involved parties will enter a highly controlled bubble that will limit their exposure to the broader community, and vice versa. The games will mark the first occasion that athletes will arrive in Australia and compete without first undertaking a mandatory 14-day quarantine period since the nation's borders closed to non-essential travel due to the pandemic.
The W-League season set to kick off with two games on Dec. 3, and quarantine procedures for Australian-based players and staff who enter the bubble but don't subsequently depart the country, are still the subject of talks. Football Australia chief executive James Johnson has previously acknowledged, albeit in a discussion regarding the Socceroos, that such individuals would likely need to undergo some level of quarantine before they could reintegrate with the broader Australian public.
Fans, likely with a requirement to be fully vaccinated, will be able to attend the two games, with the caps on their numbers to be determined by the public health order in effect at the time of the games.
"International football is unique in that players are only made available during an international window of nine days," Johnson said.
"With many of our Matildas and Socceroos based overseas, the 14-day compulsory quarantine period for international arrivals effectively rendered any international football in Australia impossible. This was the reason the Socceroos had to play their designated AFC Asian Cup qualifier home match against China in Qatar, and why our next designated home match against Oman on [Oct. 7] will also be played outside of Australia.
"Our team at Football Australia put together a submission based on global best practice, focused on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of players and staff, which has been accepted by the NSW Government and aligns nicely with its roadmap to opening up. The new arrangement, which is the first for any sport in Australia, allows international football to be played within the defined quarantine period, under strict guidelines."
The contests against now familiar rivals Brazil -- the teams last played each other at the 2019 Women's World Cup, when Australia recorded the comeback 3-2 win dubbed "The Miracle of Montpellier" -- will end a 597-day gap between home fixtures for the Matildas and mark the first occasion that coach Tony Gustavsson will have set foot in Australia since he was appointed to the post in Sept. 2020.
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The Swede has guided Matildas to the Bronze Medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games since taking charge, but his team has conceded 30 goals against 17 scored in recording two wins, two draws and eight losses. Just one of those triumphs, a 2-1 win over New Zealand at the Olympics, was achieved inside 90 minutes.
Missing several key players and experimenting with others -- both familiar refrains of the early stages of Gustavsson's tenure -- the Matildas suffered a 3-2 defeat to the Republic of Ireland in the most recent hitout. The defensive frailties that have haunted them continuing to bite, and the coach ripped his players' "desire" in the aftermath of the loss to the unfancied Irish.
Football Australia has said it expects as strong a squad as possible to be selected, but the games against Brazil and the U.S. -- and the 2021-22 W-League season -- will give Gustavsson a chance to better run his eyes over the best and most promising local talent as he builds towards the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup and the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The confirmed and mooted fixtures are likely to be staged at CommBank Stadium in Western Sydney, with the NSW Government proving the most receptive to Football Australia's request for an alteration to the existing quarantine arrangements for international arrivals. It's a "global best practice" template the federation believes can help to hasten the return of other international events to Australia.
"We are delighted that Australian football has paved the way for international sport to be played in Australia under this new arrangement," Johnson said.
"Whilst industry-leading, we also believe that this builds a solid platform for other industries, like major international events, and the broader entertainment industry, to return to Australia under similar circumstances."