Matildas under spotlight but focus can turn to football with Brazil in town

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<span>Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

The last time the Matildas played Brazil was at the 2019 World Cup. It was the Miracle of Montpellier. It was the Sam Kerr “we’re back, so suck on that one” match. The one in which they went two goals down and then won 3-2 to consign the tumult of the preceding six months to the past.

More than two years later, some 17,000km away from France, Australia will again face Brazil, again with an eye to making a statement, and again amid significant disruption. Their 20th meeting – the first of two home friendlies – with the South Americans will play out in front of a 75% capacity crowd at Parramatta’s Commbank Stadium on Saturday night.

But those 22,500 spectators – give or take – represent only a small fraction of the eyeballs trained on the women’s national team, who arrived in Sydney this week under the weight of controversy following allegations of cultural problems within the set-up.

Related: Matildas abuse allegations: details of investigation set to be revealed

The intense public scrutiny since Lisa De Vanna’s claims earlier this month that she was sexually harassed and bullied throughout the course of her international career has swallowed the current crop of Matildas, driven a wedge through relations between De Vanna and the striker’s former teammates, and prompted online abuse directed towards all parties unsavoury enough for the players’ union and police to step in.

The reputational stain has stuck, and the independent investigation hoping to wash it out looms large just as the players’ minds are attempting to remain focused on their first match since the Tokyo Olympics and the first on home soil in almost two years.

Football Australia chief executive James Johnson, who reportedly met with the squad on Wednesday, acknowledged the situation had been a distraction.

“Of course it has taken a toll,” he said. “But you’re talking about a great group of professionals playing in some of the biggest clubs in the world, and the scrutiny on these players right now is very high and they’re handling it very well.”

Johnson said the framework for the Sport Integrity Australia investigation was set to be announced imminently. “The conduct that former players have talked about will be addressed through an independent channel, not by Football Australia, by Sports Integrity Australia,” he said.

“The specific allegations that were made – that behaviour, those allegations – if they’re proven, are not OK and we will through this process call out this kind of behaviour. That is the objective.”

The subtext of everything Johnson has been saying is what the Matildas themselves have not been saying. Since their joint statement last week, which both welcomed an independent review but also defended the team’s “strong professional, inclusive and supportive culture”, the players have been effectively silent on the matter.

Midfielder Tameka Yallop came the closest on Thursday.

“To me, the allegations were surprising, given that I have been in the environment for a long time,” Yallop told AAP. “But in saying that, everyone has a different experience and no two experiences are the same.

“So we obviously support her [De Vanna] in everything that she wants to come forward with and we are happy that she’s finally felt that she can come forward. And we want to promote that as well from a safe environment. Not just for retired players or current players, but also for future players too.”

Presumably most of the talking will be done only on the field this time, and the fixture will at the very least offer insight into where Australia are at under Tony Gustavsson, who attracted cynicism early in his tenure following heavy pre-Olympics friendly losses but earned some praise for his side’s progression to the Tokyo 2020 bronze medal match. They have since lost an away friendly 3-2 to the Republic of Ireland.

“Preparation is number one,” Gustavsson said this week in the context of next year’s Asian Cup and the 2023 home World Cup. “I said that going into the September camp when we played against Ireland, we changed from performance mode from the Olympics to preparation mode.”

Brazil are foes from way back – 1988, to be exact – and familiar both in style and personnel. Formiga – who, at 43, made a record seventh Olympics appearance – has retired but Marta is still going, and the energy still contains traces of Australia’s controversial quarter-final penalty-shootout loss at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

There are other subplots, too, as Kerr – a regular scorer with Women’s Super League side Chelsea – chases Tim Cahill’s Australian international all-time goal-scoring record 0f 50. Sitting on 48 international goals, a hat-trick would do the trick.

Related: Matildas captain Sam Kerr nominated for Ballon d’Or again

Defender Alanna Kennedy will mark a milestone of her own when she makes her 100th appearance, becoming the 11th Australian woman to do so and joining current teammates Clare Polkinghorne (136), Elise Kellond-Knight(113), Emily van Egmond (108), Kyah Simon (101) and Kerr (100).

Injuries have ruled out Chloe Logarzo, Elise Kellond-Knight, Hayley Raso and Emily Gielnik, which may mean more exposure for recent debutantes Angie Beard, Charli Grant, and Clare Wheeler. Young Matildas forward Bryleeh Henry has received her first call-up.

Regardless of who is on the pitch, the Matildas have a habit of breaking attendance records. Their most recent was in November 2019 when, at the same venue, they defeated Chile 2-1 in front of 20,029. It could yet fall again.

In June 2019, more than 30,000 were at Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson to witness Australia’s comeback win – their first points of the World Cup. Ante Milicic’s team had lost the opening group-stage match to Italy in ignominious fashion. Brazil had not conceded a single goal in a World Cup group game since 2003. Ninety minutes later the narrative was flipped on its head. In October 2021, the resolution is less clear.

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