Caitlin Foord is standing on the edge of a diving board. She glances down into the clear, bright water, estimating its height from her position on the tallest platform. Below her, the rest of the Matildas’ 2011 Women’s World Cup team are doing a recovery session, bobbing around in a public pool they had found in Germany.
Foord turns and gives her friend and teammate, Sam Kerr, a mischievous grin. In the distance, Australia’s physiotherapist is storming towards them, screaming for them to get down. The two teenagers count to three before backflipping into the water.
A month later, following three eye-catching performances against Norway, Brazil and Sweden at the Women’s World Cup, the 16-year-old Foord would go on to win the tournament’s inaugural best young player award. She was one of the few defenders able to get the better of six-time Fifa World Player of the Year, Marta, who many agreed had her quietest game of the tournament against Australia. Nobody could have guessed, based on those three games, that Foord’s first national team cap came just a month before she boarded the flight to Germany.
It has been almost a decade since that tournament, and yet Foord – who has been ranked 51st in the Guardian’s top 100 players of 2020 – has not lost the playful spark that saw her launch herself off that diving board. Now a regular starter for Arsenal in the FA Women’s Super League and for the Matildas, Foord still plays with the kind of spirit and enthusiasm that led former head coach Tom Sermanni to describe her as “quite simply amazing”.
Her path towards the higher echelons of the women’s game has not been straight-forward, though. In early 2018, as she was coming into form for Sydney FC following an underwhelming season in Japan, Foord suffered a Lisfranc injury – a fracture in the bones of her foot. It was the second time she had experienced it and she questioned whether she would return as the same player; indeed if she would even be able to play again.
While lying in bed, her foot cocooned in bandages, she would watch clips of herself playing football for club and country. It was how she coped; how she arrested those darker thoughts. Those clips were a reminder of what she was, and still is, capable of.
She returned to football in August of 2019, working her way back to fitness with NWSL club Portland Thorns. However, despite the help of her teammates, fans and staff, Foord’s time with Portland did not live up to the expectations of a player who had been named Asia’s best just three years earlier.
A return to Sydney FC beckoned. And it was here, surrounded by familiar faces and familiar spaces, that the Wollongong-born Foord recaptured the flair and cheekiness that has come to characterise her playing style. She played a key role in Sydney’s championship-winning season in 2018-19, finishing second in the Golden Boot with nine goals in 12 games – four behind Kerr – which included her first W-League hat-trick.
Her blossoming club confidence translated onto the international stage, too. Her first international hat-trick came in a friendly against Chile in November 2018, before scoring a crucial goal against Brazil to help Australia reach the round of 16 at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
But like many senior Matildas, the exhausting back-to-back seasons between Australia and America finally took their toll. She joined the exodus of players to Europe in January 2020, lured by the fully-professional set-ups and consistent, year-round seasons of England’s top-flight.
While Kerr’s move to Chelsea has received the most attention (and scrutiny), Foord’s move to Arsenal has arguably been the most productive of any Australian. With five goals and five assists in seven games, Foord has quickly become one of the league’s most effective recruits.
Her direct, powerful dribbling combined with her ability to play in both wide and tight spaces – an understanding gained over the course of a career that has seen her rotate between full-back, winger and centre-forward – has made Foord slip seamlessly into Arsenal’s established style.
She is also becoming a fan favourite, exhibiting the same dynamic, joyful football that the club is known for – the same football that saw a young Foord identified and fast-tracked to international stardom a decade ago.
As the Matildas head into the most important four-year tournament cycle in their history, Australia can take confidence in knowing one of their own is entering the form of her life. And standing next to her on football’s biggest platforms, as she has been since the beginning, will be Kerr – the two forwards a testament to the courage and the character that have taken them this far, one backflip at a time.