How Young Matildas and Sydney FC star Sarah Hunter is making up for lost time

How Young Matildas and Sydney FC star Sarah Hunter is making up for lost time

Sarah Hunter puts her hands on her hips, looks down at the penalty spot and takes a deep breath.

Whistles ring around the Estadio Nacional stadium in Costa Rica as 25,000 local fans try to distract, intimidate, overwhelm — anything to put the young midfielder off.

And with good reason. The home nation are 1-0 ahead, thanks to a thunderous strike by Costa Rica captain, Alexandra Pinell, which came largely against the run of play. They’d not qualified for an U-20 Women’s World Cup before, and now they were in the lead.

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However, a goal from Hunter could change things. Not only would it bring the Young Matildas back level to 1-1, it would also be Australia’s first goal at this tournament in almost two decades.

Seconds crawl by, as though flattened by the weight of the moment.

The referee gestures sternly towards the players around the top of the 18-yard area, ensuring not even a shoelace is poking over the white paint.

And the jeers from the crowd grow louder as the video assistant in a distant room checks and re-checks the decision.

Still Hunter waits, breathing steadily.

You get the sense that she could have happily stood there forever because, for the 18-year-old Sydney FC player, even just being on a football field after what she has been through is a bit of a blessing.

“From when I was 10, until about 16, I missed pretty much most football,” Hunter told ABC.

“I had two hip surgeries that put me out for over six months each. I had a broken ankle. I had an ACL reconstruction — all in about six years. So that put me out for majority of that period.

“I missed all the Junior Matildas tours, which was upsetting as a young, aspiring footballer.

“So, being back on the pitch over the [past] two years, it’s just been the most amazing thing. I’m always so grateful to be on the pitch because I’ve missed so much in the past.

“Now, looking back, I’m just so grateful to be where I am. I’m grateful for all the hard work and knowing that I never gave up.

“I’ve always had this dream and I’ve never strayed from that. This is what I love. Ultimately, I don’t think anything was going to stop me.”

After several years’ worth of injuries, Sarah Hunter is finally making a splash on the national team scene.(Supplied: Football Australia/Ann Odong)

This injury-addled history explains why Hunter’s name has been largely absent from conversations around the future of the Matildas over the past few years, and explains her late arrival onto the A-League Women scene.

Indeed, having missed out on the formative football periods and pathways that many of her Young Matildas team-mates have followed, it feels rather miraculous that she’s ended up here at all.

It’s no surprise to head coach Leah Blayney, though.

In fact, when Hunter made her debut for Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-League Women in 2020, Blayney was already keeping a close eye on this emerging star of Australia’s midfield.

Three games in to her first professional season, Hunter scored twice in a 2-2 draw against Adelaide.

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In the stands that day was her loyal band of family and friends — affectionately known as The Sarah Hunter Cheer Squad — with hand-drawn posters, shirts and delighted chants that were captured on the pitch-side microphones.

Blayney was in the stands that day, too. I remember, because she turned to me and said: “This kid’s something special.”

She was right. Ella’s future in the Young Matildas was all but secured after an even-more-impressive season with Sydney FC, where she helped the Sky Blues lift the Premiers Plate, appearing in all 16 games and dazzling during the final.

Hunter earned her first national team call-up less than a month later and has only continued to blossom.

She was a stand-out performer in a two-game friendly series against New Zealand back in April and scored in all but one game during Australia’s World Cup preparations in Mexico, including bagging a brace in a 3-3 draw against the hosts.

A female soccer player wearing blue kicks a ball
With just two A-League Women’s seasons under her belt, Sarah Hunter has already become one of the league’s most exciting midfielders.(Getty Images: NurPhoto/Izhar Khan)

With a keen eye for space, an assurance with the ball at her feet, and a 360-degree vision that rivals some senior midfielders, one wonders where this teenager could be now, had her body allowed her to get there.

Indeed, after being on the cusp of physical failure for so long, it seems as though Hunter is now doing all she can to catch up to where she was always supposed to be.

“I missed a lot of games in that period, so each game is an opportunity for me to get better,” she said.

“I’m always grateful to be able to learn and get better because that’s ultimately the journey. Footballers want to get better each day and, when you’re not playing games, it’s hard to do that.

“Just being at a World Cup right now is honestly such a great learning experience. And, for all these girls, as well, going into the future, hopefully this group learn so much and we can all step into that senior level and we’ I already have so much experience.”

However, the setbacks have been as much a part of making her into the player and person she is as much as her acceleration over the past two years.

Those moments have given Hunter a sense of perspective and worldliness that belies her age, seen in a message she sent to her nine-year-old self as part of a Matildas pre-tournament exercise.

“You’ve come through a lot of things,” she said softly.

“You’ve put in a lot of work. Lots of ups and downs. Getting through lots of injuries, missing out on tournaments and games. You’ve missed out on a lot.

“I’m just super proud of you. You never stop working, you never stop believing in yourself. I’m always looking back at pictures of myself and seeing the love you have for the game: That always pushes me to keep going whenever I feel like stopping.”

It was the well of resilience she dipped into when Australia went 1-0 down to Costa Rica on Thursday.

But, as Hunter said afterwards, she wasn’t rattled. None of them were.

A female goalkeeper dives to try and stop a goal
Alexandra Pinell’s shot flew past Young Matildas goalkeeper Sally James in the 19th minute, but Australia didn’t give up.(Getty Images: FIFA/Hector Vivas)

“Obviously, when you’ve got 22,000 people screaming for the other team when they just scored, it’s a bit daunting,” she said.

“But our group is so strong, and when you’re in that mentality of, ‘We’re going to win this game’, nothing can face you. We were all on that journey together in that game.

“The setback just made us stronger.”

And now that mentality — that strength in setbacks — has brought her here, as Australia’s designated penalty-taker, standing on the cusp of something she has been wanting her whole life.

The jeers from the crowd fade as the referee lifts the whistle to her mouth.

Hunter looks down at the ball, takes one final breath, and strides forward, driven by all that has come before her and all that is yet to arrive.

A female soccer player wearing yellow and green kicks a ball
Sarah Hunter scored the first goal for Australia in their 3-1 win over Costa Rica in the first group game on Thursday.(Getty Images: FIFA/Buddha Mendes)

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