One year on: Re-living Westfield Matildas v China from a team manager, commentator and fan perspective

As the Westfield Matildas took to the pitch for their vital Olympic qualifier against China, Simon Hill, Vito Basile and Bekki Spratford all watched on from unique vantage points. 

On duty commentating the match, Hill was perched alongside Michelle Heyman in a box on level four of Bankwest Stadium's Western stand.

Vito, Australia's Women's National Performance Manager, sat pitchside on the team bench alongside Equipment Manager, Chad Ralston and Strength and Conditioning Coach, Tony Wignell.  

While as a member of Matildas Active Support, Bekki was one of the many fans packed behind the Southern goal, straining her vocal cords as she cheered on her beloved team. 

One year later, all three provide enthralling perspectives of what turned out to be a night to remember. 

WATCH: Westfield Matildas React to Australia v China | Featuring van Egmond, Catley, Simon and Logarzo

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The build-up

Vito Basile's day on the 13th of February 2020 began following a familiar pattern.

A 6:30am start, 8:30am breakfast and 11:30am team meeting all ran to plan as the Westfield Matildas staff geared up their players for the vital match. 

While it was well-known that a point would be enough to secure top of the group, all preparations were targetted at closing out the group stages of the tournament with another win. 

"The last group match against China would definitely be the most challenging, though after two dominating performances against Thailand and Chinese Taipei, leading into the match, my level of confidence and belief remained high, particularly given all the prior preparation and match analysis for China was meticulously completed," Vito recalls.

Vito Basile
Australia's Women's National Performance Manager Vito Basile (standing)

"The work, or rather the energy invested in the lead up to the match is significant and was no different to any other match. Each player and staff member contributed volumes of time to best prepare the team for on-field success.

"We maintain an environment that allows our mindset to generate self-positivity and self-belief in our individual ability and that of our colleagues. A positive result for the match is an automatic expectation as we trust in our process, philosophy and are aligned in our vision. Importantly, we trust in each other and our performance." 

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Simon Hill's lead-up was a little less straightforward after he was drafted in to call the action as a 'last minute replacement'.  

“To be honest, I was only told a couple of days beforehand that I was calling the match, so my prep was all a bit last-minute," he reveals. 

"But I remember the atmosphere being one of expectation - the Matildas were hot favourites to win and complete the job, so I don't remember there being too much tension about the place.  More celebratory (in anticipation of qualification), if that makes sense." 

Simon Hill
Experienced football commentator Simon Hill has called some of the most iconic moments in Australian footballing history

Arriving in the stands ahead of kick-off, Bekki had the chance to soak up the pre-game atmosphere in Sydney's West. 

"The atmosphere was amazing, we were loud and pumped up and ready to watch our team cruise their way through the final hurdle to qualification," she recalls. 

"The walk to the stadium was abuzz with excitement and adrenaline, chants breaking out and flags waving everywhere. I definitely expected China to put up a fight, but, heading into it, I was very confident we would get the result needed." 

Westfield Matildas v China at Bankwest

That wasn't in the script: China strike with five minutes to play

In a toughly fought-out battle, both Australia and China created some golden chances to break the deadlock; but it was not until the 86th minute that the visitors managed to do exactly that. 

Moments after having a fierce effort palmed away by Westfield Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams, China's Tang Jiali left the Bankwest Stadium crowd shellshocked as she rocketed a powerful left-footed strike into the back of the net.

"Honestly, it felt like everyone had just been kicked in the chest," Bekki reflects. 

"The mood dropped and the crowd fell silent - but that's where we (Matildas Active) step in! We know the team needs us to be in the game as much as they are. You don't stop supporting your team when they fall behind. You cheer harder and chant louder and hope you can give them more energy and drive to keep fighting.

China vs Australia

"As the game went on, it started to feel like it was going to be one of 'those' games. You could see the team was hungry to make things happen, but it doesn't stop that feeling that creeps in as the time winds down and chances start to run out.

But true to their 'Never Say Die' attitude, they never let their heads drop. They kept fighting and making chances - and that's why it is so easy to support them." 

Vito also recalls how the mood on the sidelines took a drastic hit. 

"A sense of heartache and devastation for the players, staff and fans instantaneously engulfed me," he recalls. 

"Respect to China that evening who certainly played with determination and intensity. But for us to potentially lose the match at the very end despite the tremendous effort and preparation displayed by the players (and staff), simply didn’t sit well.

"It was important for us, particularly as staff, to continue displaying positive behaviour and energy on the bench and to believe in the players on the park at the time." 

Westfield Matildas v China at Bankwest

Meanwhile Simon Hill was faced with the challenge of heaping praise on China for making the all-important breakthrough. 

The Australian-based commentator remained as professional as ever, naturally recognising Jiali's impressive strike with deserved excitement. 

"Well, this is an oft-asked question, and the truth of the matter is that when you are commentating a game, you are not watching as a fan," he explains.

"The reality is, you don't have time to be a fan when you are calling a match. There is such intense concentration required for the ninety minutes, you aren't experiencing the spectacle in the same way as a supporter.  So no, I didn't find it difficult - other than wanting to ensure I got the right name for the goal scorer!

"Of course there is not the same inflection for a goal scored by the opposition against the home nation in such a big game - but that is a reflection of the narrative (commentators are story-tellers as much as anything), rather than passion for a team." 

Saying that, Hill's natural support of the Westfield Matildas did see him forced to conceal the mixed emotions he was experiencing. 

"I remember being as surprised as anyone though, as to how good China were," he adds. 

"Their build-up had been so difficult with quarantine and lack of training, I think few expected them to be competitive - but they were, and then some!" 

"I remember a growing sense of frustration. The Matildas were knocking on the door, dominating possession and racking up the chances, but they just couldn't find a way through. China defended for their lives." 

'Just hit it': Emily van Egmond's last gasp equaliser

Just as time appeared to be running out and the reality of a difficult play-off against South Korea was seriously setting in, a moment of magic from the Westfield Matildas sent Australia into delirium. 

Kyah Simon's lay-off for Emily van Egmond to rattle home a wonder-strike was a sequence that instantly sealed its spot in Australian footballing folklore.  

"We were right behind the goals and you could not pick a better shot to experience up close," Bekki recalls. 

"Chloe Logarzo and Kyah Simon were working hard to keep what was probably the last chance of the game alive...then EvE steps up and lays her boot laces into it.

"Seeing a goal hit like that and fizz in the top corner on any day is a treat, but to be there and see the one that helps qualify us for the Olympics? Well, it's simply an indescribable feeling." 

Simon Hill's recollection of the moment is remarkably similar to that of the Matildas fan.

"I do remember mentally thinking "just hit it" when the ball dropped to Emily Van Egmond - thankfully she did, and it was as sweet a strike as you could wish to see," he says. 

"A lovely goal - and a great one to be able to call, because it was so important." 

Down on the sideline, Vito and Australia's support staff were riding every second of the contest.

A loss would have of course meant a shift in focus to booking last minute flights and accommodation in South Korea, with the ever-expanding threat of coronavirus adding a complex layer to their plans.  

"Firstly, credit to Kyah for maintaining exceptional composure to hold-up possession, to draw in defenders and for her perfectly weighted-pass at such a critical moment in the match," he reflects.

"As for Em, the moment she struck the ball, watching from the team bench, we knew that the shot was destined for the back of the net. It was intense, ‘edge of your seat football’ given the importance of the occasion.

"The moment Em struck the ball, we prematurely celebrated knowing the ball was heading in the right direction toward the goal, prior to the ball crossing the goal line.

"There was excitement on the bench amongst the players and staff and with honesty, some relief that we equalised (certainly from my behalf).  I recall running and jumping in the air celebrating the goal, such is the emotional release of that moment."

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What it all meant...

Interestingly, Bekki, Simon and Vito's perspectives differ the most when it comes to reflecting on the significance of the night. 

For Bekki and fans across the nation, in a time where the ability to support your team in person has been heavily restricted, van Egmond's late strike represents a moment to savour. 

"To say the crowd went wild would be an understatement," the Matildas active member recounts. 

"It was one of the last times anyone could jump and scream and hug one another before the pandemic hit. I'm so grateful we got to celebrate that way because there's not a lot of other ways to let those feelings out!" 

Simon Hill has called some of the most iconic moments in Australian football history during his time; considering the recent fortunes of the Westfield Matildas and what lies ahead, he sees this moment as one to rival them all. 

"It's difficult to put into context, because in many ways, that was as important a moment in qualification for the Matildas, as John Aloisi's penalty was for the Socceroos against Uruguay in 2005." 

"But of course, the Matildas have been to many major tournaments - the Socceroos (at that point) hadn't, so the whole emotion around the two events were very different. 

Westfield Matildas v China at Bankwest

"I can just remember really enjoying the whole occasion. There's a different feel to the women's game - there's tension of course, but it feels more celebratory than the men's in many ways. 

"The Matildas know they are a good team in the great scheme of things, whereas the Socceroos are striving to become a major player.  Having said that, with that knowledge comes expectations, and I think the next few years are going to ramp up for the Matildas with the Tokyo Olympics, the Women's Asian Cup, and then of course a home Women's World Cup." 

While for Vito, the players and staff, celebrations after the match were relatively short-lived as attention immediately turned to the final playoff round. 

"We approach each match with the aim to win and although it ended in a draw, we enjoyed the moment knowing that we finished top of our group and progressed to the next stage for Olympic Qualification," the team manager says.

"We contained our celebrations, mindful that the mission to Qualify for Tokyo was not yet complete, as a home-and-away playoff against Vietnam was up next only weeks later.

Anthem Vietnam
Australia's bench ahead of the second leg of their Olympic play-off against Vietnam.

"Immediately, I shifted attention to the operational planning requirements for the next stage, searching for best flight options and accommodation in Vietnam." 

Would you like to hear the players' perspective of that night in Parramatta? Click here to watch the entertaining 'Westfield Matildas React - Australia v China' and read a minute-by-minute account of the famous match.