The Australian women’s soccer team has finally captured the nation’s hearts – the question is why it took so long. By Sarah Krasnostein.
Matildas: The World at Our Feet
In his classic study of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote that the hero’s adventure begins with someone who feels there’s “something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society”. They take off “on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir”. The hero’s journey is typically a circle, a story of leaving and returning forever changed, with something of benefit to others.
“When I grew up, I didn’t even know who the Matildas were, it just wasn’t on TV…” says Matildas centurion Steph Catley, 29, in episode one of Disney’s docuseries Matildas: The World at Our Feet. “If anyone asked me, ‘Who was your female sporting idol growing up?’ I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have one.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by her teammates, most of whom recently returned home, from the elite European and American clubs that are their bread and butter, to represent Australia in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which kicked off on July 20.
Everyone on that squad was born before Australia created an A-League for women in 2008. This “golden generation of Matildas” is also the last generation of Australian women’s soccer players who had to look outside their own sport for role models. This isn’t because there weren’t forebears – the early Matildas are legendary to those who know about them – but they never received the resources or visibility of their male counterparts.
Which is all to say I wouldn’t have imagined myself tearing up while watching a show that could be described as a PR exercise. In tracing these athletes’ adventures beyond the ordinary, this series does something vital, and in ways more powerfully moving than expected.
Opening 18 months out from the World Cup, the cameras follow the players as they train for battle. Like Homer’s warriors, they’re poised between glory and homecoming. Scattered across the globe, they regularly endure the longest-haul travel to attend national games and intensive training camps. The pandemic isn’t the only thing complicating preparations. Stalwarts are injured, debutantes must be blooded, and a defeat at the 2022 Asian Cup is a psychological blow. Head coach Tony Gustavsson, who took over in 2020, must produce a squad capable of winning “the royal of all royals”. “We have not many days,” explains captain and striker ne plus ultra Sam Kerr. “And if you don’t get it right, you don’t get it right.”
“The expectation is like nothing we’ve ever seen in the history of the national women’s football team,” journalist Sam Squiers says to camera. That’s partly because this is the first women’s World Cup played on home soil. Mostly, however, the expectation matches the potential of the players, both individually and in their lethal combinations.
Let’s name a few. There’s Kerr, breaker of records, an apex predator so devastatingly effective her mere presence on the field has been called “talismanic”. Balletic Ellie Carpenter, whose greatness launched her from rural Cowra to Olympique Lyonnais. Veterans who drive through the opposition like tanks, so unflappable you’d follow them into war: Clare Polkinghorne, who recently became Australia’s most capped footballer in any code, and Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord, entering the peak of a career initially funded by chocolates she sold with her single mum to cover training costs.
There’s Katrina “Mini” Gorry, returning stronger than ever from maternity leave after undergoing IVF alone to fulfil her dream of motherhood. Less short than concentrated, Gorry’s explosive power is evident in her near-constant contact with a moving target. Like fellow catalysts Hayley Raso and Emily van Egmond, there are few players Gorry cannot rapidly disarm, no fray into which she won’t launch herself. Unflinching goalkeepers: Lydia Williams and Mackenzie Arnold. And the younger players, soaring across the pitch with the brightness of burning arrows: Cortnee Vine, Kyra Cooney-Cross and Mary Fowler.
Each episode delivers dream tracking shots and close-ups that reveal the range of their powers: speed, strength and, crucially, the ego-less attunement to each other that allows the most diligent strategies to be dynamically adapted through familiarity, trust and support. That’s how, after filming ended, they went on to beat some of the world’s finest: Spain and, 100 days out from the World Cup, England.
Their combinatory powers are uniquely potent because a critical mass came up together. There are friendships in that squad going back to childhood, playing hide-and-seek between twice-daily training sessions. The immediacy and intimacy of the camera allows us to witness the unique advantages of that deep bond in action. So, too, off the field.
We see Lydia Williams standing on her Country outside Kalgoorlie, honouring her father, a survivor of the Stolen Generations. Before Emily Gielnik proposes to her partner, she explains the cultural pressure that once prevented her from coming out, how she let go of a shame that was not hers in order to live more fully. Surrounded by teammates, Aivi Luik shaves her head after a match to raise funds for brain cancer research, following her brother’s diagnosis. With gentle glimpses into the players’ personal lives, the series is always reinforcing that the heart of the Tillies’ “Never say die” motto is not grit alone but the empathic mutuality required for resilience.
What better medium to communicate that than a reality series that creates, with each viewing, the change it wishes to see? Every cut to a new Australian location tells us whose Country we’re on. We’re invited into conversations and locker rooms and common rooms that read as safe, diverse and inclusive spaces. Children are welcomed at training camps – “an add-on and not a burden”, explains Gustavsson, who understands that supported players play best. Constantly we see exhausted athletes finding time to energetically engage with young fans. When Kerr decimates Tim Cahill’s all-time goalscoring record, The Daily Telegraph runs a front-page headline calling the achievement “not equal”. Her rightful anger is not for herself but for the impact on girls who might internalise that message.
FIFA awards its female athletes a quarter of the prize money it gives the men for the same work and achievement. Similarly, despite our national players’ standing, women’s soccer in Australia continues to lack the investment and coverage of the nation’s dominant sports. It’s the series’ own light that illuminates the unstated fact that there are no women at the table when an executive discussion is held about the squad for the Cup of Nations. Likewise, the series’ concern with equality and legacy spotlights the absence of those earliest Matildas who might have finally got their moment of visibility. Perhaps critical assessments would’ve been impolitic, or even irrelevant given the series’ purpose, which leads to my larger concern.
A docuseries like this is primarily a vehicle to increase intimacy with its subjects, and therefore the “likeability” that leads to greater interest. Such interest drives viewership and support. However, with soccer currently showing the highest participation rate of any sport in the country and an anticipated two billion viewers tuning in to watch the global game played in our stadiums, the question is what political failures have made such a vehicle so necessary in the first place.
While the time and energy involved in ambassadorship falls under athletes’ media duties, strategic marketing is not their job. That’s primarily a question of political will and resource allocation, as the absence of similar “vehicles” in men’s sport attests. As Foord says at one point, “I hope my legacy is that girls can just play freely and not have to worry about how they’re going to get there and what they have to do to get there.” The imbalance speaks to the larger landscape of sport in this country: not only who has received the spotlight and the money, but what those predominantly male athletes have done with the resulting fame when their arenas are marred by racism, homophobia and gender violence.
While I’m ambivalent about the need for this series, I’d happily watch it over again for the feeling of seeing our heroes return home, each one of them carrying that magical elixir – capable, in Cathy Freeman’s recent words, of getting “into the blood of everybody who’s on this journey”.
In Matildas, we have a game-changing reality series, one that will remain relevant for as long as our athletes have to fight for fair play and due recognition.
Matildas: The World at Our Feet is streaming on Disney+.
CINEMA Melbourne International Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Naarm/Melbourne, August 3-20
CULTURE Beaker Street Festival
Venues throughout lutruwita/Tasmania, August 4-13
MUSIC Dvořák & Tchaikovsky
Perth Concert Hall, Whadjuk Noongar Country, August 4-5
CIRCUS Crystal – Cirque du Soleil
Qudos Bank Arena, Gadigal Country/Sydney, August 3-13
EXHIBITION Misty Mountain, Shining Moon: Japanese landscape envisioned
Art Gallery of South Australia, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, until November 12
PIP Theatre, Meanjin/Brisbane, until July 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Matildas: The World at Our Feet".
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