Matildas mania sweeps Australia ahead of England semi-final

matildas-mania-sweeps-australia-ahead-of-england-semi-final

Fans hold their breath during the Australia v France penalty shootout on Saturday, at Melbourne's Federation SquareImage source, Getty Images

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Fans hold their breath during the Australia v France penalty shootout on Saturday

By Tiffanie Turnbull & Hannah Ritchie

BBC News, Sydney

Lizzie Wilson was never a sports fan.

A month ago, the 24-year-old hadn’t ever sat through a match – of any kind – or even heard of the Matildas. Now, she lives and breathes football.

“I’m one of the Matildas many new followers on Instagram, I’ve been deep diving on YouTube, I made myself learn the offside rule… I’ve [even] been dreaming about their penalty shots.”

“I’m like: ‘What is wrong with me’… that’s the kind of level of obsession.”

It’s a familiar story unfolding across the country. From rural pubs to city stadiums, Matildas fever has well and truly taken hold.

Getting a seat at Wednesday’s semi-final against England has felt like finding a Willy Wonka golden ticket, with many arguing it’s tougher than than securing admission to a Taylor Swift concert.

It’s hard to walk anywhere in Sydney without seeing homages to the team – massive posters are plastered on skyscrapers, billboards scream players’ names, and fans are decked out in green and gold.

Saturday’s game against France was Australia’s largest television sporting event in at least a decade, with an estimated average viewership of 4.17 million. Post-match highlights saturated social media.

Many hope the Matildas’ meteoric rise and World Cup mania will be a turning point for women’s football in Australia.

‘Never say die’

It was not long ago that the team was still playing to empty stadiums.

In 2014 one of the best women’s sides, Brazil, flew to Brisbane to face the Matildas in two friendlies.

The first match sold fewer than 2,600 seats, forcing Australia’s Football Federation to close the stadium for the second meet, as it was too costly to run an empty venue.

Image source, Getty Images

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The Matildas played to an empty stadium during their 2014 friendly with Brazil

In the early years, players reportedly handed out fliers to attract people to their games, and phoned television stations to ask them to broadcast their matches. During the 2003 World Cup in the US, not a single journalist turned up to the Matildas’ airport press conference.

But since then, the team has fought for recognition, airtime, and equality. Their efforts have paid off.

Throughout this tournament every Matildas match has been effectively sold out – with millions more fans flocking to viewing sites across the country, tuning in online or at their local watering hole.

The team’s kit is flying off the shelves leaving suppliers like Nike struggling to keep up, and there’s even talk of a national holiday if they lift the World Cup trophy.

“For decades they told us nobody cared. We didn’t believe them. Now they believe us,” the team’s media manager Ann Odong posted on Saturday, following their dramatic quarterfinal penalty shootout with France.

The Matildas’ success on-field is part of the story. They’re history makers.

Australia has always been sports obsessed, but when it comes to football, no national squad has ever made it this far on the World Cup stage.

The best performances from the men’s team – the Socceroos – were round of 16 finishes in 2006 and 2022. And until now, the Matildas have consistently bowed out around the quarterfinal mark.

But their their grit in the face of adversity is what captures hearts and minds, says football journalist Samantha Lewis.

“The Matildas’ motto is ‘never say die’, and that spirit of fight and perseverance is not only seen in the way they play on the field, but also in all of the things they’ve achieved off of it, such as collective bargaining agreements and equal pay,” she told the BBC.

For a nation that’s always loved an underdog story, the attitude is very on brand.

“That’s the reason why they resonate so strongly with the country: they reflect how we want to see ourselves,” Ms Lewis says.

The fact that it is England – one of Australia’s greatest sporting rivals – that stands between the squad and a World Cup final, has created a fever pitch of nervous anticipation.

Image source, Lizzie Wilson

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New fan Lizzie Wilson celebrates a Matildas win with friends

And Ms Wilson is counting down the minutes until the semi-final against the Lionesses.

“I’m incredibly stressed and also very excited. It’s intense.”

Creating history

Regardless of the outcome on Wednesday, Football Australia says the Matildas have sparked a movement.

“The interest we’re seeing around our game right now is phenomenal,” the association’s head of women’s football Sarah Walsh says.

“I think this is going to be the World Cup where we move beyond saying ‘no-one’s watching’ to ‘hey, who’s paying?'”

A former forward who played for the Matildas from 2004-2012, Ms Walsh aims to leverage the tournament’s success to take the game to new heights here.

That means “driving structural change” to close the opportunity gaps that persist for women and girls, she says.

Image source, Getty Images

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The Matildas want their tournament to leave a legacy

But Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson believes his team has already broken cultural barriers.

“This team can create history in so many ways, not just by winning,” he told a recent press conference.

“[It’s] the way that they can inspire the next generation, how they can unite a nation or [how] they can leave a legacy that is much bigger than 90 minutes of football. I think that is also why I believe in them so much.”

Ms Wilson is a testament to that. As someone who felt sidelined from sports as a kid, she feels included in that world for the first time.

“Watching these women on screen I’m like: ‘Oh my God, I want to be that strong. I want to be able to run that fast.'”

But above all, she’s feeling proud.

“I literally went out [on Sunday] and bought myself a newspaper, just so I could have [the Matildas] photo on the front… crazy.”

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