By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Riding momentum and the support of a sports-mad nation, co-hosts Australia head into the Women’s World Cup dreaming of a first global title after battling for years to be counted among the heavyweights of the game.

The Matildas have travelled a rocky road since being bundled out of the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup in France.

There were calls for coach Tony Gustavsson’s head last year as they crashed out of the Asian Cup quarter-finals, and again when they slumped to a 7-0 defeat by Spain.

However, they have since turned a corner, winning eight of their last nine matches, including a 2-0 defeat of England in London that snapped the European champions’ unbeaten run of 30 games.

Swede Gustavsson said he hoped his players could remain humble after the England upset but that has not stopped fans’ expectations from soaring into the stratosphere.

Australian Rules football and rugby league have long been the country’s favourite winter sports but soccer is now having its moment.

Fans are still buoyant after the performance of the men’s team at the World Cup in Qatar where they reached the last 16 before bowing out to eventual champions Argentina.

Sharing hosting duties with New Zealand, Australians have snapped up the lion’s share of the 1 million tickets sold so far for the women’s tournament.

More than 40,000 fans will watch the Matildas warm up in Melbourne against France a week before it starts, a local record crowd for a women’s soccer match.

Players hope home support might help them hoist the World Cup trophy and leave a similar legacy for the women’s game that England now enjoys after the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 triumph.

“If you do well at a major tournament that you’re hosting, the effects and the ripple of that can be huge,” said defender Steph Catley, who plays club football in England with Arsenal.

“It’s gone through the roof since (the Euros) and grass-roots is benefiting from that.”

Since reaching the quarter-finals at the 2007 World Cup, Australia have aspired to greatness but flattered to deceive.

Barring talismanic striker-captain Sam Kerr, world class players have not been in abundance.

An over-reliance on Kerr has hurt the team, and as hard as Gustavsson has worked to build depth he will be praying she can avoid injury.

No player is anywhere near as clinical as Kerr in Australia’s forward positions and the Matildas, ranked 10th in the world, can struggle to unlock tight defences without her.

Australia’s own defence and box-to-box play has come a long way since their bleak period a year ago.

Even with key players out injured the midfield has shown itself capable against the world’s best and adaptable under pressure.

Most questions about Gustavsson’s starting 11 have been put to bed and the Swede has unearthed quality players to come off the bench including Charli Grant and Alex Chidiac.

Australia should canter into the knockout phase from Group B which also includes Canada, Ireland and Nigeria.

From there, they will hope to ride confidence, crowd energy and a bit of Kerr magic to go beyond the quarters for the first time.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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