The numbers were great, even if the game wasn’t: 75,784 fans watched the Matildas open their FIFA World Cup tournament against Ireland at Sydney’s Stadium Australia – the highest attendance for a women’s soccer match in this country – while Channel Seven said an average of almost two million had watched the game from home. Only the State of Origin series has had a better TV audience this year.
One of those watching the Matildas’ 1-0 win on July 20 was Sarah Walsh, head of the women’s game at Football Australia and a former Matilda herself. Walsh retired from international soccer in 2012, before moving into the game’s administration. It would have been a proud, pleasantly surreal moment for Walsh – not least because the successful Australia–New Zealand bid to host this World Cup was announced during the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. “There was a really dark point, I remember, where there was very little leadership around the table – we stood down 70 per cent of our workforce [because of the virus],” Walsh tells The Saturday Paper. “At the same time, we won the rights to host the Women’s World Cup after a significant amount of work that went into that prior to 2020.”
And so there was the delirium of winning the hosting rights but also the grave uncertainty of 2020. What might the World Cup even look like? Regardless, Walsh says, Football Australia refashioned its priorities – and its organisation – to focus upon the Matildas. “There are many things that changed in our organisation to be able to make sure that we led with the Matildas,” Walsh says. “It didn’t mean that we didn’t do work on the Socceroos. It meant that we led with the Matildas, and as a result we’ve had the highest revenues, the biggest commercial partners that we’ve had for the Matildas. So there was a lot of significant change to our operating model here in Australia, which allowed us to just focus on the Matildas in creating that connection to the grassroots. And we’ve done that. We’ve never had such a commercial footprint for the Matildas.”
So far, so good: all Matildas matches have sold out; in fact, almost every match held in Australia has done the same. And since the 2020 announcement of the winning bid, state and international borders have long reopened after the severe isolation of the early months of the pandemic. The past week, our country – along with New Zealand – has enjoyed a great festival of the world game. The sad, eerily vacant stadiums of the Tokyo Olympics are a strange memory.
But can Football Australia translate the interest and excitement in the international game into an improved interest in the domestic leagues? It’s a recurring hope after every World Cup, men’s or women’s, and yet there remains a gulf between the two forms of soccer. “I think there’s something inherently different about national teams here in Australia, and I don’t think that’s a unique situation framed around football,” Walsh says. “But I think in this country, whether you like football or not, people have a real understanding for the magnitude of a FIFA World Cup, whether it be women’s or men’s, and so every four years when it comes around, you know, we see scenes like we did in November and December for the Socceroos.
“We have Legacy ’23. That was launched at the same time we were thinking about how we put the Matildas first, and the Matildas are part of that Legacy ’23 plan. It’s really about leveraging the [World Cup] to drive economic and social growth for the game. And it was quite fitting, the timing. So we set up an entire department that I oversee … we are the biggest club-based sport here in Australia, but we have a long way to go in terms of our percentage for women. So we set that [50-50] target for women and girls.
“For us, we’re spending a lot of time driving the conversation with government around community facilities. For instance, here in NSW, only 24 per cent of our community facilities are considered inclusive for women and girls. If we want to reach 50-50, we need states to get serious about enhancing where a woman or girl plays, because ultimately, that will be the key barrier. So I guess what keeps me up at night is that we’re expecting a significant increase in participation post-World Cup and I don’t have great confidence that we won’t be at capacity for many clubs, particularly here in NSW. So we need to do something about that.”
This week, the co-chair of football’s national Indigenous advisory group, Dr Karen Menzies, wrote to FIFA and Football Australia complaining of Legacy ’23’s “egregious omission” of First Nations communities. Football Australia, which established the advisory group in 2021, disputed the criticism.
The sanctioned euphemism used to describe the Matildas’ opening match against Ireland seemed to be “gritty” – though “tense” and “nervous” were popular descriptions too. Well, okay. It was also a “gritty” performance from the Victorian premier last week, and the West Coast Eagles have been conspicuously gritty all year.
But if I’m to trust the evidence of my own eyes, then the Matildas’ performance was not “gritty” but something closer to “diabolical”, even if Ireland had played with about 37 defenders – a dense, artless mass the Australian team was tasked to breach without their elite striker, Sam Kerr.
If the Matildas now enjoy a gilded status – if their credibility and popularity has been established, which it has – then I’m unsure what’s gained by pretending that they can’t also play badly at times. The match summaries that followed the opening game felt less like journalism and more the wishful descriptions of defensive parents. The same was true of the live commentary, which had a habit of effusively praising things like a simple back pass or the survival of Katrina Gorry’s competitiveness despite motherhood. “She did well to beat her defender there,” sang the commentator when Hayley Raso’s header flew harmlessly away from goal, and while her allegedly outfoxed defender was literally on her knees. It seems instinctively patronising to me. And what’s behind it? Do we fear the sudden dissolution of the Matildas’ popularity? Are they that fragile? Are we that fickle?
This was one response to the Matildas’ opening night, but there was another – the indignant wolf-howls of betrayal when, a little more than an hour before kick-off, the sudden and unexpected absence of Sam Kerr was announced. “Sneaky and deceitful,” howled News Corp’s Dean Ritchie. “Australia’s Matildas gave a two-finger ‘up yours’ on Thursday to the very people they are desperately trying to woo – their passionate fans.”
Captain Kerr had suffered a calf strain in the Matildas’ final training session – a bad one, which will see her miss at least the first two games of the World Cup – and the team had withheld the information until the last possible moment. In a press conference the day before, Kerr and Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson maintained impressively impassive faces. “I would not like to play poker against you,” joked Channel Seven’s Adam Peacock to Gustavsson after the match.
But the Matildas had breached no protocols around team announcements, and what they’d done is simple enough to grasp: they’d tactically withheld news of the injury from their opponents. Good.
Are the Matildas hard-nosed professionals or not? Should the Matildas defer to the media and fans, as if they are not principally athletes, but patrons of vague, feel-good values – or should they defer to their best possible game plan? The indignation was a different response to the post-match kid gloves, but both seemed to share the same patronising sheen. If the Matildas are to serve as “role models” and “sources of inspiration”, et cetera, then the expectation they behave differently from the men – that they should prefer media relations to winning – is either insensible or it reveals that we want them to serve as patrons for very different things.
I mean, imagine: it’s the eve of the men’s Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan. In their last training session, City’s Kevin De Bruyne suffers a ruinous calf injury. Sensitive to fans’ emotional investment in the star player, City coach Pep Guardiola summons the media for an emergency press conference – though he calls it a “healing session”. With De Bruyne, whose calf is still strapped in icepacks, sitting beside him, Guardiola solemnly testifies to the importance of “transparency” and “our fans’ parasocial attachments” before detailing the injury both to De Bruyne’s calf and also their hearts.
Please. Within the boundaries of the rules, the Matildas tried turning a tonne of lemons into a drop of lemonade – and fair enough. And then they played terribly. It happens – is that so hard to say? Beneath the weight of expectation and the stark loss of their megastar, the Matildas are up against it – especially in light of the imperious, near-faultless performance of Germany this week against Morocco, in which Die Nationalelf might have emerged as the tournament’s favourites.
That burden just got heavier after the Matildas shock 3-2 loss to Nigeria on Thursday evening. It now leaves Australia vulnerable to exiting in the group stage, and they’ll likely need to defeat Canada – ranked seventh in the world – in Melbourne on Monday. Ironically, Australia played better in their loss to Nigeria than they did in their victory over Ireland, but their dominance – especially in the first half – was not translated into goals. Failure to make it past the group stage would be cruelly disappointing for the team, who most pundits expected to reach the quarter-finals. At time of writing, mystery still surrounds the injury status of Sam Kerr.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Moment of truth".
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