Heyman: "I have pure fire in my belly.”

Tony Gustavsson’s 23-player squad to take on Uzbekistan in the third and final round of the AFC Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Paris 2024™ Asian Qualifiers features players both new and old, expected and unexpected, continuing and returning.

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One of the most striking names selected is 35-year-old Michelle Heyman. The striker has scored 20 goals in 61 appearances for the CommBank Matildas, but the most recent of those national team caps was in November 2018 - over five years ago.

“I have pure fire in my belly,” she said on Wednesday morning. “I just feel like I am 21 with all the knowledge, which is something that I find really special at the moment. I can get to where I need to go, and understand the process now.”

She took time away from the game for the 2019/20 A-League Women’s season, before making her return with Canberra United in 2020. She hasn’t looked back since. She won the Julie Dolan medal for best player in her comeback season, and her strike rate in the A-League Women has been remarkable – she has scored 41 goals in 58 appearances since her return to the game.

“It’s been a long journey since 2018,” she reflected. “I had to take a year off. I needed time to fix my mental health, to be able to be a real human again, to figure out who I am as a person and not just as a footballer.”

“The one thing that kept happening was that passion and that feeling that I wanted to play, and I wanted to give it another shot. Out of retirement, I was very lucky to sign again with Canberra United and I had a stellar career coming back, which is one of the greatest comebacks of my journey – until today!”

Kaitlyn Torpey, Michelle Heyman and Chloe Logarzo of the Matildas pose during the Matildas squad announcement ahead of the AFC Women's Olympic Football Tournament Paris 2024 Asian Qualifiers, at Federation Square on February 07, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Josh Chadwick/Getty Images)

Her return to national team duties was incredibly emotional for the veteran.

“I was told about this comeback in an ice bath!” she laughed. “I was doing my recovery, and I was just checking my emails hoping that there would be a special email in there. When I saw the CommBank Matildas' Team Manager’s name pop up, it was incredible. I jumped out of the ice bath, and I just ran. I ran to my partner’s work and I just needed to give her the biggest hug.

“She cried because she knew how hard I’d been working for this. She said the nicest words to me, but she also told me I deserved it… to be able to have the support of my other half is just the most incredible feeling to have with this announcement.”

Heyman debuted for the CommBank Matildas in 2010, when she was 21 years old. She admits that she has undergone several reinventions since the fresh-faced striker took the fledgling Australian domestic game by storm.

“Michelle Heyman back in 2010 was very young,” she laughed. “She was wild. She had no idea what was going on in the real world.”

“Michelle Heyman in 2018, she was tired. She did a lot for her country. I was lucky enough to go to a World Cup, to an Olympics. I did everything I could for the Matildas, and then I was starting to break down.

“The difference between those two Michelles, and Michelle today, is that awareness and that knowledge of what needs to be done to be a CommBank Matilda. I have spent half my life in that team and I know the steps. I know what it takes to play for your country. I think having that information is key, and I’m really excited to bring that experience.”

The forward said that her focus in camp was bringing “as much Michelle as I can,” and to “smile every minute of the day” – an invaluable part of the expertise that Heyman brings.

Michelle Heyman (L) of the Matildas celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal during the international women's friendly match between the Australian Matildas and Vietnam at WIN Jubilee Stadium on May 21, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Michelle Heyman of the Matildas celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the international women's friendly match between the Australian and Vietnam at WIN Jubilee Stadium on May 21, 2015, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

If the CommBank Matildas defeat Uzbekistan over two legs, they will qualify for Paris 2024™. This February window is critical both for the team as a whole but also for the players – like Heyman – who are fighting for a place in a potential Olympic squad.

“These games are the most important, because, it’s your one shot,” she explained. “It’s now or never and that’s how I’m looking at this. I am going to go in so strong, I am going to put 110% into every training session to show to Tony, to show to all the staff, and the team, that I’m capable. I’ve got that experience, and I’m ready to prove a point.”

She finished by emphasising the team’s focus against Uzbekistan.

“Going into these matches, we’ll be coming in fighting, ready to go, and wanting to dominate within the first 15 minutes,” she said. “That’s the type of football that the Matildas want to be playing.”

“I think the main focus is just to be a squad, be united, and just bring all of that together to play some really good football.”

The CommBank Matildas will take on world number 47, Uzbekistan, in a two-match home-and-away series on 24 February 2024 at Tashkent’s Milliy Stadium (8.00pm AEDT), before returning to Australia for the final Asian Qualifier on 28 February 2024 at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium (8.00pm AEDT).