Matildas waltzing to World Cup with 'golden generation'

A women's World Cup victory would be the crowning glory for Australia's "golden generation" and could inspire a wave of young players ahead of a bid to host the next edition in 2023.

Captain Sam Kerr, twice short-listed for FIFA player of the year, leads a formidable Matildas squad under coach Ante Milicic, who came in after Alen Stajcic's controversial sacking in January.

Kerr, 25, has become an idol for aspiring players after her exploits in Australia's W-League and America's National Women's Soccer League, becoming the all-time top-scorer in both competitions.

Last month, Kerr and her team-mates including Caitlin Foord underlined their World Cup credentials by winning the inaugural Cup of Nations in Melbourne, beating Argentina 3-0 in the final.

It reinforced the belief that sixth-ranked Australia will be a force to be reckoned with at the World Cup in France, starting in June, where they face Italy, Brazil and Jamaica in Group C.

Football -- introduced in Australia by British migrants in the late 19th century -- battles for attention in a crowded sporting landscape of rugby league, rugby union, Australian Rules and cricket.

But with the 'round-ball game' already the country's number one club-based sport, Football Federation Australia (FFA) is trying to develop the next generation of elite players.

Last year the FFA set up its "Future Matildas" programme to build on Australia's bid to host the 2023 World Cup. If successful, it could double the number of women playing club football to 270,000.

"We have to make sure that the 15- to 20-year-olds who have ability, are ready to make the step up to the Matildas," FFA chief executive David Gallop told national broadcaster ABC.

"Because the W-League season is quite short, we needed a programme that would provide intense training, so these guys could make the step to the Matildas, at the right time."

- Rising fortunes -

Some of the young hopefuls came together on a muggy Sydney evening at a pre-season training session for under-14 girls at Moorebank Sports Soccer Club.

Jessica Eagle, who has played Australian Rules, football and volleyball, has her eye on a professional soccer career.

"I think I'd choose soccer because another experience like that wouldn't just pop out," she told AFP, referring to the World Cup.

"It's really exciting if you get offered a place to play higher, so I'd probably grab at the opportunity."

Football in Australia received a big boost when the men's "golden generation" including Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka took the Socceroos to the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.

But the Matildas have also been consistent performers on the international stage, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals three times.

The sport is not without its issues and the Matildas were thrown into turmoil by Stajcic's unexpected -- and still unexplained -- sacking over what the FFA said were "workplace" and "player welfare" issues.

Meanwhile, the team have also been at the forefront of efforts to close the gender pay gap and lift earnings and working conditions in football.

Eagle's team coach Sash Lazarevski said more should be done to support aspiring players. But he's been encouraged by the rising fortunes of women's football, and women's sport in general.

"There are more opportunities now for women in sport than there ever was before," Lazarevski told AFP.

"There's more structure in training, there's more development in the levels... so there are no differences between a boy and a girl anymore."

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