Tears, spilled beer, joy, disbelief and a fulfilled fantasy not too far from the past appeared to be a pipe dream. Stadium Australia in Sydney was a nervous wreck of emotions as the Matildas began their World Cup journey in front of 75,784 fans decked out in green and gold.
As Steph Catley pumped his fists in the air after an expertly taken penalty, Australian football fans let out a long breath and erupted in a collective roar.
It was a record crowd for an Australian women’s football match, easily surpassing the previous record of 50,629 set just a week earlier. And the 1-0 win over Ireland ensured that the fans went home with the memories of a lifetime.
Waving high and proud above the nation’s sporting heroes is the Australian Aboriginal flag, representing the original caretakers of this land. And packing the stands are Australians of various migrant backgrounds, whose diversity has helped build a modern nation.
For rising star striker Mary Fowler, with Irish and Papua New Guinean roots, showing the world’s multicultural society is a proud moment.
“Australia is very special in that sense. It’s great tonight to go out on the field and wear the Australian jersey, but to be able to speak to a country that I feel connected to,” he told DW after the game.
‘It’s an exciting time for football’
This night is of course an opportunity for all football fans, regardless of their background, to enjoy the glory that has been coming for a long time. Glory that does not come easily and that is thanks to the countless pioneers who loved the game in the midst of all the ridicule.
Former men’s international Johnny Warren is perhaps Australia’s biggest soccer advocate, pioneer, and fan. He strongly believed that football would one day rule the roost in Australia and famously said he wanted his legacy to be: “I told you so”.
“We always believed football would be like this in Australia,” midfielder Katrina Gorry said after being asked about Warren’s iconic words. “It always takes time unfortunately but I think we can show what we really have in Australia. It’s an exciting time for football.”
The game may not reach the heights Warren predicted but hosting football’s biggest event is a huge opportunity to grow the game.
The generations coming through, they’re not going to have to fight the same battles we did,” added Gorry. “And hopefully we can pave the way for them and change football in Australia forever.”
‘We haven’t seen anything like this since the Olympics’
Australian football has never had an easy ride. From being mocked as a game for women, immigrants and homosexuals to the Matildas in 2009 having to strip to raise funds, it’s a constant battle for relevance.
With a population of just 25 million, Australia is a saturated sporting market and has traditionally had four major sports: cricket, AFL/Aussie Rules, rugby league and rugby union. Football is fifth in the pecking order.
“It’s pretty wild when you think about how far it’s come. It’s great to see Australians really getting behind this code,” Matildas fan Fiona said.
“We haven’t seen anything like this since the Olympics, it’s epic,” added fellow fan Ash.
“I caught the bus here and to see that it was three-quarters full of women and girls, that was pretty cool too.
That is why there is a lot of pressure on the Matildas to have a good run in the tournament. If they can perform amid the hype, the crowds will stick around and state governments will be convinced to pour more funding into the development of the sport in Australia.
Australia prevailed in Kerr’s absence
On the field, the first-half performance against Ireland was never good enough to match the hype. A masterful relationship has been lost to the talent of injured superstar Sam Kerr, although his replacement Fowler has shown glimpses of magical footwork.
But the Matildas picked up the script in the second half, Steph Catley racing away after conceding the decisive penalty in the 52nd minute. His teammates chased after him, the bench was almost on the edge of the touchline, and people were waking up from their slumber.
One goal was enough, though Ireland forced some scrambling clearances from the Matildas in the final 15 minutes, with goalkeeper Lydia Williams making a crucial stop at the death.
Momentum is the key as Matildas target a dream run
Australia’s enthusiasm was huge with one million tickets sold for 35 matches and almost every game showing “low availability” on FIFA’s official ticketing site.
Combined with the 300,000 tickets sold in New Zealand, the target of 1.5 million is in sight, breaking the current record held by the 1999 World Cup in the United States.
“I don’t think football has that many supporters,” Gorry said. “But we put on a show and over the years we’ve brought a lot of supporters with us.”
For young women, and men, watching the best football players in the world, in their own backyard, can change the landscape.
“Being able to engage and transition girls into the game is really important,” said Emere Bell, who coaches youth teams on the Central Coast.
“It’s unbelievable for them to see the biggest stars in the world right here. To see the World Cup here, Down Under, and in New Zealand, it’s unreal.”
The football festival is set to continue for a month as Australia’s best known home for this tournament. The hope now is that when it’s all over, the buzz sticks around. If the Matildas can lift the trophy, it will be an easy sell.