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Australia's Matildas take another step in the rise of women's football

Matildas celebrate
Australia's win over North Korea on Monday night guaranteed the Matildas a spot in Rio.

"The future of football is feminine." A famous quote, from an infamous man.

It was one of the more lucid utterings of the now disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in his time at the helm of the World Game, but the 100,000 female players who kick a ball around the parks of Australia are unlikely to have paid it any heed.

Much more inspirational to them is the continuing success of the women's national team.

With visions of the Copacabana just over the horizon, the Matildas will celebrate International Women's Day this year in Japan, preparing to close out a hugely successful Olympic Qualifying campaign with their final match against China having already secured their berth in Rio with one game to play.

As Football Federation Australia launched Female Football Week to promote and celebrate the role of women and girls in the game, they could not have hoped for better publicity than the players donning green and gold in Osaka.

Since the inaugural Australian women's national team was established in 1978 to participate in the first Women's Invitational Tournament in Chinese Taipei, the women's game has moved in leaps and bounds. The Matildas are now regulars both on the world stage and in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings.

Mooted as the team most likely to bring World Cup glory down under, what would it really take to send this side up to No. 1 to depose the likes of the United States? In a country that already has a congested sporting landscape and limited resources, does it really just come down to numbers?

Head of new expansion side Orlando Pride in the NWSL, Tom Sermanni has seen firsthand what goes into making a side world-beaters. As coach of the U.S. women's national team following a long and successful second stint in charge of Australia, he knows the difference the dollars make.

"The U.S. has over two million youth players and a football program in every college that keeps players in the game between the ages of 17 and 22," Sermanni told ESPN FC.

"Plus they have a solid professional league with 20 or more games. So in real terms it's hard to match that. The key is to utilise the resources available as effectively as possible.

"That's integral to competing with and trying to overtake the U.S."

The Matildas' much-publicised pay dispute in 2015 highlighted the struggle for elite women in the game. A Collective Bargaining Agreement was nutted out between Professional Footballers Australia and FFA officials and resulted in a minimum of 14 Tier One players receiving an annual retainer of AU$41,000 plus match payments. The players in Japan will also receive AU$560 per match.

It's a living, but only just.

While it's passion, not profit, that keeps the players coming back, they long for a time when they can all be full-time footballers like their male counterparts.

As Matildas and Canberra United striker Michelle Heyman -- who last year supplemented her W-League (Australia's national women's competition) career with a stint at Western New York Flash -- said: "Being professional would mean we could focus 100 percent of ourselves on the game, including training, gym, eating right, recovery and physio.

"Girls wouldn't need to have another job."

Melbourne City W-League win
Melbourne City won the 2015 W-League in their foundation season.

That is no longer such a far-fetched notion for the women as shown by the newest W-League side that snatched the title in its debut season.

"Melbourne City set the standard of where women's football needs to be heading," Heyman said.

"They ran a professional club this season and treated the girls the same as the men."

Yet even the City players need to find football outside of the elite domestic competition. The recent W-League regular season afforded each team just 12 matches, which leaves contracted Matildas some eight months without first-class football if they can't pick up an overseas club.

Current national team coach Alen Stajcic has been involved in women's football programs for 15 years and says that providing for these players in the off-season is one of the short-term challenges for greater success, highlighting the need for "strong W-League and state-based academy training centres for ALL nationally identified players."

While the Westfield sponsorship of the W-League has been crucial, improving the lot for female footballers is still heavily reliant on the money brought in by the men's game.

There is progress being made, though the steps are excruciatingly small.

"We are slowly but surely closing the gap," head of Women's Football at the FFA, Emma Highwood, said. "It's incremental but the improvements in the preparation and environment around the Matildas are being reflected in their performances and the results."

The success of the new Australian television deal will likely be the biggest factor in determining how much more money can be tipped into the women's game.

To make a bigger leap will require lateral thinking. More than 700 million viewers globally tuned into the 2015 Women's World Cup, so the appetite for elite international women's football is there.

Surely there is a sponsor or stakeholder out there brave enough to take a punt on the Matildas and make the investment to put them on top of the world?

Someone to prove the future of football is indeed feminine.

ESPN Australia/New Zealand columnist Stephanie Brantz has spent the past 20 years excelling in the coverage of football and women's sport.

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