The best young female footballers in the country are right on Wollongong's doorstep, including Wombarra goalkeeper Sofia Fante.
The Football NSW Instititue player - who hopes to become the next Mackenzie Arnold - took to the field for NSW Metro U16's in their 2-1 win against Victoria in their first match of the National Youth Football Championships at WIN Stadium. The game featured many Junior Matildas, including Fante.
Fante was part of the Junior Matildas squad which qualified for the second round of the 2024 AFC U-17 Women's Asian Cup earlier this year.
The Bulli High School student began her football journey at Coledale as well as spells at Football South Coast and the Illawarra Stingrays. She was recently part of the Junior Matildas squad which played Korea Repbulic in two friendlies in June.
With plenty on the horizon for the Junior Matildas such as Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers in Indonesia, Fante was eager to impress.
"I think I went pretty well. I kept a clean sheet so that's good," she said following NSW Metro's 2-1 win against Victoria at WIN Stadium.
"It was a very good game, very close. But we were expecting that from Victoria. They were a very good football team.
"I'm nervous but obviously excited. It's just a really great opportunity to play in front of some of the best coaches and scouts in Australia. It's the big stage I guess you could say and all the players are coming here to impress. [I've been preparing for this] pretty much since trials. It's our off season at the moment but I've been doing my training twice a week and a lot of work in the gym.
"It's the highest level of competition you can play against in Australia and some of the best players obviously."
The tournament got underway at both WIN Stadium and JJ Kelly Park on Monday, October 9 with female teams in both the under 14s and under 16s taking part.
The National Youth Championship has long been an integral part of the Football Australia's talent identification program, proving an important stepping-stone for many current Matildas and Socceroos.
There will be 22 female teams taking part across under 14s and under 16 divisions throughout the week, 12 in 14s and 10 in 16s. From the Monday through to the Wednesday, games will be played at simultaneous times at both venues.
Heading into the final two days, the U14s are scheduled to be split into two divisions, 'A' and 'B'. Semi-finals will again be played at WIN and JJ Kelly, before the three grand finals (U16, 14A, 14B) will be played on the Friday, October at WIN Stadium.
Fante and the other players taking part will want to impress Young Matildas coach Rae Dower the most. Football Australia's women's technical director and Young Matildas coach was in attendance at WIN Stadium on the opening day of the tournament and took some time out to chat to the Mercury.
"Two weeks ago we were in Vietnam and qualifying for an Asian Cup and then today they're out there kicking the hell out of each other," Dower laughed.
"There's a lot of talent out there that we've been following for the last couple of years but this is an opportunity for other players to step out from those shadows if you like and put their name forward. And we've got such a really great, long depth in this age group. So we've got a really long list of players that we're continuing to look at and the doors never close.
"Somebody with a great performance here this week means they may come into the next Junior Matildas camp."
Dower added that the event was extremely important to the development of the future Caitlin Foord's and Mary Fowler's.
"It's extremely important for all those players pretty much. Most of the current Matildas squad came through the National Youth Championships," she added.
"There'll be a lot of nerves especially the first day. So it's all about how do kids bounce back from making errors? That's really important and that shows a lot about their mentality and their character. Even as a former player myself, the National Youth Championships actually form some of your greatest lifelong memories. The connections that you make and the team mates that you share, you'll have these experiences for life.
"We've got some really talented young players and the future is very bright."
The full list of fixtures and results can be found by clicking here.
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