23 - Mackenzie Arnold: "It's always been my own belief I needed."
Fans have watched on as shot-stopper Mackenzie Arnold has claimed her place in goals over the last six months. Part of the national team for over a decade, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is her third World Cup call-up, but the Matildas' opening match against Ireland was her FIFA Women’s World Cup debut.
In her ‘23’ profile Arnold shares the ups and downs of her rise to become the Matildas current starting keeper. Some might be surprised to know that not only did she not want to be a goalkeeper, she also wasn’t even going to play football at all.
The young Queenslander started playing the beautiful game when she was seven years old. It was a casual pastime that she never really expected to go much further than a bit of a kick-around with her brother in the backyard.
When she was 14, Arnold tried out for her first girls' team, but the outcome wasn't exactly what she was hoping for.
“I actually tried out for a Gold Coast team as a right back and the coach told me, you’re probably not going to make it as a fullback, but we do need a goalkeeper. I said no, absolutely not, I’m not going to be a goalkeeper," Arnold explained.
That was the end of that, or so it seemed. Several years later, fate raised its head again and Arnold was asked to step in as goalkeeper with her then-club team. This time, she said yes, and this is where her path to the national team really started to take form, but it wasn’t without its challenges.
“I was picked up by Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) when I was 16 years old, then went to my first Young Matildas camp when I was 17, but I was sent home,” she said.
“It was the last day of camp and I wasn’t allowed to play. I was basically told not to come back. I went back home to QAS and Jeff Hopkins, my coach at the time asked me what had happened. I was honestly so blasé about it. I thought it was just a soccer camp. I had no idea what it was.
“I didn’t take it very seriously. Late to meetings, late to training, you name it. That was me. It wasn't ideal. Then, all my friends from camp went away to Thailand and that was the first time I realised it was a tryout for national team,” Arnold continued.
“It was hard for me at the time, because I hadn’t grown up with an aspiration to play for the Matildas. That was never on show for us, so it wasn’t something I had to look forward to or look up to."
As Arnold moved out of her teenage years, she got the reality check she needed from her coaches and realised that with commitment, football could be something she could make a living doing.
“I moved over to Perth for my first season of W-League when I was 17, which is also the same year I made my Matildas debut (2012).”
Over that 11-year time span, Arnold has collected 36 caps, with five of these coming in the last five months and only three goals slipping past her this year. But almost unbelievably, it was just over one year ago that Arnold played in the Matildas' painful 7-0 defeat to Spain in June 2022.
It was the first game she’d played for the national team in seven months. Her confidence was battered; she wouldn’t make another appearance for eight months. Shortly prior to this, Arnold was also dealing with the biggest regret of her career.
“My biggest regret would probably be the period before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics,” she shared.
“I did my MCL and had just come back from that. I was ready to play physically, but mentally I was not at all ready. I still said I was fine to play and told them to put me in, but I absolutely blew it because I was mentally all over the place.
“It just snowballed on, and ultimately I didn't make the Olympic team. That three-month period was the lowest of my career. I thought to myself, that's it. I can't do this. I don't want to feel like this anymore. I don't want to be put in this position anymore. That night I could not stop crying," Arnold continued.
“All the girls were saying how proud they were of me. I had trained like I hadn't trained before, because I was so mad at myself and I wanted to prove a point so badly. I just thought this is something that I never, ever want to feel again. I don't want to sit in the stands and watch my team succeed, and not be a part of it. That was a real turning point for me.”
In late 2022-early 2023, both Matildas goalkeepers, Lydia Williams and Teagan Micah became unavailable due to long-term injuries. Arnold was thrust into the starting keeper position. The change of the guard was out of necessity, but Arnold took the opportunity to prove she belonged there of her own merit.
This was in February of 2023 during the Matildas’ Cup of Nations campaign, so the pressure was on, but Arnold really began to shine. Conceding only two goals and making nine key saves across the three-match tournament, the team managed to raise the trophy undefeated, with Arnold claiming Player of the Tournament.
The shot-stopper once again met with Spain during the tournament, but this time, was able to help the Matildas to victory.
“It just been a massive roller coaster. Now that it's all happening, it's almost like, this is what I've been waiting for. Everything that's happened is worth it because of the last six months,” she said.
“In the past, I think I always waited for someone to believe in me. Whether it was coaches, my teammates, my family, or whoever it was, I always relied on other people's belief for my confidence.
“I always felt like I needed to put on a performance that was going to make someone believe in me. So, I was always putting that pressure on myself. Don't make a mistake. Don't do this. Don't do that.
At Cup of Nations when I was given that first game, I just told myself, play your game,” Arnold continued.
“I was probably third keeper at the time, so I ultimately had nothing to lose. I had also been playing for West Ham and felt comfortable, I was performing quite well. I had been playing against the best players in the world over in England, so why couldn't I take that into the Matildas and play the same way? I had to believe in myself. I knew I could do it.
“Looking back, being in the mindset I'm in now, I realised that it's always been me, it's always been my own belief that I needed to take me to the next level.”
Off the pitch Arnold shared a glimpse into her private life, when she posted on social media that she had been fitted for hearing aids.
“There wasn't really any motivation (to announce it publicly) I would say it was more the fact that I just didn't have a choice anymore,” Arnold explained.
“It was just after COVID and with everyone having masks on, it made me realise I was lip reading more than I thought.”
Her brother, who also wears hearing aids and was diagnosed with hearing loss as a toddler, guided Arnold throughout the process.
“I needed someone to do that, because I was too scared to take the first step,” she said.
“It was a conversation that I was having for a while, my friends were always telling me to get my hearing checked. So, my brother took that first step for me. He found a hearing centre in London, I went and got my hearing checked and straightaway was told I need hearing aids.
“I always knew my hearing wasn’t great, but the reality of actually wearing hearing aids for the rest of my life, wasn’t something I was willing to accept. Over the last 10 years I had noticed it getting worse, so ultimately, I didn’t have a choice because my quality of life is the most important thing.”
With so many recent changes in her life, both on and off the pitch, Arnold was asked if her perception of herself had changed.
“I don't love talking about myself,” she laughed. “But I would definitely say that the confidence I feel in myself has changed dramatically. I feel like I belong in the team. I feel valued and like I play a key role on the team. It's like, the girls need me just as much as I need them.
“It's almost like I feel part of the team now and that's got nothing to do with the coaches or players or anything. That was always just my own mindset. I felt like, I didn't belong, or I wasn't good enough. So now I feel like I belong, I can play like that too.”
In terms of the legacy she wants to leave, Arnold is hoping that her journey encourages others to practice self-belief and grab opportunities early.
“I would love for people to look at my career and just know that it's never too late,” she said.
“I'm 29 now and realistically, for a goalkeeper, maybe that's not too old. But it has taken me over 10 years to get to this spot. I would love for people to take their opportunity a lot earlier than I did. But it is nice to know that I am at this spot now and that everything I've done previously has brought me here.”