Emily van Egmond and Gema Simon could never have imagined representing Australia together in Newcastle in front of more than 16,000 people when they started out as foundation W-League players at the Jets a decade ago.
Now the Newcastle co-captains are hoping a second “dream come true” on Tuesday night at McDonald Jones Stadium will prove an ideal preparation for next year’s World Cup in France.
Van Egmond played and Simon was on the bench last year when Australia beat Brazil 3-2 in Newcastle in front of a record home Matildas crowd of 16,829. They return to face Chile, who upset Australia 3-2 on Saturday in Penrith before 15,185 fans.
Simon, who didn’t feature on Saturday, has comeback from knee surgery to rejoin the Matildas squad and looks likely to play a role this time around in Newcastle.
“It's a dream come true,” Simon said. “I suppose growing up you always want to play for your country and to do it in your home town is something special.
“And it's also special to have Em with me. I think I've known Em for about 15 years or so, so I'm quite proud of what she's achieved and I'm so happy to play with her.
“The crowd support here is amazing and the atmosphere here last year was second to none in what I've experienced.”
The huge support for the Matildas, and women’s football in general, in recent times is a far cry from Simon and Van Egmond’s first steps onto the national scene. In 2008-09, they helped the Jets make the first W-League finals, where they lost to Canberra in front of 2889 at McDonald Jones Stadium. In 2009, less than 3000 watched Australia play Italy in friendlies in Sydney and Canberra.
“Back then it was unheard of,” Simon said of the crowds the Matildas now attract.
“You would go and watch the Matildas play back then and there wouldn't be that many at the game, so I think it shows how much the game has progressed and where it's going.”
For Van Egmond, playing in front of big crowds was also an important opportunity to prepare for the biggest stage next year in France.
“We’ve built somewhat of a profile for ourselves now and with that comes a bit of pressure,” Van Egmond said.
“And for us to be able to play in front of these big crowds is what we want because when you go into big tournaments, that‘s what you’re up against, the atmosphere, and there’s no bigger occasion.”
Van Egmond scored twice from the spot in the loss to world No.39 Chile and she will again be a key player in midfield. Blunders at the back proved costly for the world No.6 but Van Egmond was confident they could turn the tables.
“There were a lot of positives,” she said. “We created a lot of goal-scoring opportunities. It was just maybe our final pass or our final decision we're making in the final third that let us down and obviously those defensive lapses that we need to clean up, which I think we will.
“Now we know what Chile is all about we can go out and play accordingly.”
“There’s no better occasion than to be able to play in front of friends and family in your home town. We’re very fortunate to have home games. I know the FFA and the city of Newcastle, and Penrith, have worked extremely hard to make this happen.
“As a team we’re just very humbled to be able to come out and play home games because in the past it’s been a lot of travel for us.”
Australia were expected to overwhelm Chile given the gulf between the nations in the world standings but van Egmond said rankings were “neither here nor there for me”.
“With the way women's sport's going now, especially in football, I think you see that every country is looking to get better and you can't take anyone lightly,” she said.
“We've had a couple of questions in regard to their ranking in the world, but for me that's irrelevant. They come from a footballing culture and I think we definitely have to respect Chile in that aspect.
“Every team now are extremely competitive and every team is a challenge so to be able to get an opposition like Chile to come out and play on home soil is another challenge for us.
“Anyone can beat anyone on any given day and that’s just showing how far the game has come and where it’s going.”