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From Rockets to Records: How the Matildas Galvanised Australia

Sport is the only place where a loss can equal a win. That's where we find the game of football in Australia, and women’s sport in general.

Sport is strange. Only in the theatre of organised sport can a draw produce ecstasy, where followers will travel to all corners, stay up all night, gladly empty their wallets for their team and come back for more.

Sport is tribalism. Nothing else gathers the clans quite like sport, music or food. Bring those elements together, and you can reach hysteria, nirvana.

Sport is the only place where a loss can equal a win. And that is where we find the game of football in Australia, and women’s sport in general, in the hours after the Matildas’ painful loss to England in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The Matildas were soundly beaten at the semi-final stage by a poised, lethal England. The 1-3 margin perhaps flattering the English, and leaving enough room to wonder what might have been had Sam Kerr nailed that late chance, or if Australia didn’t concede that soft second goal, which, on any other day would’ve been dispatched into the grandstands.

Sport can pump you up, suck the wind out of your sails.

Football, as the vast majority of the sporting landscape knows it, is the religion in England, a country whose men’s team had won the big golden trophy back in 1966, and has desperately tried to scale that mountain ever since. England was sharp, clinical and was expected to win this contest.

Cut it every which way — with the exception of the actual scoreline — the roundball game in Australia, and women’s sport in general, is flying right now.

And that’s all thanks to the Matildas.

They’re the toast of Australia, progressing deeper than ever before in the most important tournament on the planet, for the world’s most popular sport, and doing so on home soil.

It’s the results away from the pitch that deserve a deeper dive, those metrics that expose when a moment in time becomes a pop-culture phenomenon.

How do we know we’ve witnessed something “extraordinary,” as broadcaster Channel 7 has called it? The ratings make it official. No event on TV captured the eyeballs or the attention like the Matildas have done in this tournament.

Only a decade ago, the Matildas struggled to put bums on seats. Now, Australia’s biggest football stadiums suddenly appear too small for purpose.

It’s important to compare the tournament with something like-for-like. In terms of audience and eye-watering contracts, professional basketball is the only other team sport that sits at a table with football.

Australia’s Opals is, like the Matildas, a brand associated with brilliance, a team that has won a world championship, and collected medals at the Olympics. Like the Matildas, the Opals have produced all-time superstars, and a share of controversy leading into major competition. The FIBA Women’s World Cup was hosted on Australian soil in 2022. Where did you watch the Opals fall in that heartbreaking semi-final against China?

Chances are, you didn’t watch it at all. Lauren Jackson hauled the Opals to a bronze with a classic performance, but the team didn’t galvanise the country quite like this Matildas team.

Some numbers can’t be punched into a spreadsheet. Consider, those full houses at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, a venue known to locals with a long memory as Lang Park, a rugby league hothouse ruled by “the King” Wally Lewis, whose statue greets visitors at the entrance.

Nearly 50,000 Brisbanites filled the place for England’s narrow escape against Nigeria, many wearing green and gold, even though the home team was interstate. The excitable teenage Aussie lad behind me in the nosebleeds, shouting encouragement to the players, none of whom he could name, in what was clearly his first exposure to soccer, is the posterboy for the Aussie soccer fan of 2023.

When the cameras swept the crowd at Suncorp and elsewhere, we spotted vintage Wallabies gear, Socceroos kit. Off brand, but in sync. Matildas merch has been flying like that Sam Kerr rocket in the semi. The EKKA is currently in Brisbane. The official Matildas showbag sold quicker than a Caitlin Foord closeout.

The Boomers shifted their friendly against Brazil to an earlier tip-off on Wednesday night to accommodate the Matildas, with each of the ballers arriving at Melbourne’s John Cain Arena wearing Matildas jerseys (presumably, they have good connections). Patty Mills and Co. watched on, their social team sharing the evidence. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese rallied behind the team. The entire country did. Heroes emerged, legends were made.

Hosting a World Cup brings with it some unusual baggage. The home team typically advances to the knockout phases. It’s expected that the home team performs well. Co-host New Zealand didn’t live up to the bargain. When the Matildas lost to Nigeria in the first round, as an injured Kerr sat on the bench, it appeared the Aussies had fluffed their lines too.

It turned out to be the loss we needed to have. A monster win against the highly fancied Canada, then the gruelling victory against France, ensured Australia would play the maximum number of games, climaxing this Saturday with an historic opportunity to compete for third place, with only Sweden, winners over the mighty U.S. of A., standing in our way.

More than one million tickets have changed hands for this tournament, a record. How many had never watched soccer, or indeed elite women’s sport, before, is anyone’s guess. The question now remains, how many are converted? Be sure, all that prized Matildas merch won’t stay in the closet for long.

Questions should now be asked of prize money, and of FIFA, the sport’s administrative body which, to date, has failed to award World Cup hosting rights for the fellas. If and when that happens, the Matildas can take a bow for kicking open the door for the men, and galvanising a country.

This loss was a win. Only sport can do that.

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