A dream ending for England, a dream denied for Australia
By Rory Smith
The noise was giddy, and gleeful, and just a little bit wild, as if the 75,000 fans who had packed into Sydney’s Stadium Australia could not believe quite how perfectly it had all turned out. They did not know it would not last, of course; at that point, the very idea it might not felt remote, absurd. In that moment, the noise seemed to ripple and crackle with magic.
Australia will not win this World Cup. That honor, instead, will fall to one of Europe’s two new powerhouses: Spain, narrow victors against Sweden on Tuesday, and England, conqueror of the Matildas — winning 3-1, but no more comfortably — on Wednesday. On some level, though, this tournament has belonged to Australia.
For three weeks, the Matildas have held the country in the palm of their hands. Australia was captivated by the team’s brush with despair in the group phase. It was enthralled by its composed demolition of Denmark in the round of 16. The whole place seemed to hold its breath for the duration of the quarterfinal victory against France. The nation soared with every exhilarating high, and it suffered in each moment of exquisite tension.
There had, though, been one thing missing. Sam Kerr, Australia’s captain, totem and superstar, had talked on the eve of the tournament of hoping she might be able to create what she termed a Cathy Freeman moment: an echo of that instant, 23 years ago, when Freeman streaked to gold in the 400 meters at the Sydney Olympics.
Because of a calf injury sustained on the very eve of Australia’s first game, though, she had been robbed of the chance to make good on her promise. Even against England on Wednesday, on her first start of the tournament, she seemed to be running out of time.
Ella Toone had given England the lead. The Lionesses, the European champion, looked unruffled, assured, as comfortable as it is possible to be when surrounded by tens of thousands of Australians who are all invested in your ultimate failure.
And then, out of nowhere, there it was. Kerr had the ball, but she also had two England defenders in front of her. She dropped a shoulder. She shimmied, just a little. She saw an opening. From 25 yards, she launched what — for another player — would have qualified as a speculative shot.
Mary Earps, England’s goalkeeper, scrambled to cover it. She could not. The ball was traveling too fast. In the semifinal of a World Cup, Kerr had delivered. Australia, the team and the stadium and the country, had its moment. In the crowd, the working assumption was that there would be many more. This was all too perfect, as if it was all following a script.
And then, of course, came the twist.
It is not a bromide to suggest that Australia’s run in this tournament will have what Alex Chidiac, one of its midfielders, called a “lasting legacy” in this country. Its effects will take time to crystallize, but that does not mean they are not real. “There will be so many young girls who have been inspired by what we have done,” defender Steph Catley said. It felt, to Hayley Raso, as if the Matildas had “got the whole country on board.”
All of that is meaningful. All of it matters. It may well be that this tournament comes to be seen, a decade from now, as the beginning of a virtuous circle for Australian women’s soccer, of Australian soccer in general, in fact. “There is no argument now that people are not interested,” Catley pointed out. It is hard to argue.
For all of those fans recently won over by the sport, by this team, though, what there was is an important lesson. Sports are capricious, and they are cruel. Australia was still airborne, reveling in Kerr’s goal, doing all it could to inhale a second, when Ellie Carpenter misjudged a long ball. Lauren Hemp spotted her hesitation.
Through the fog of its delirium, the crowd needed a second to process the sight of Mackenzie Arnold’s outstretched arm, the ball nestling in the net, Hemp wheeling away in celebration. All of a sudden, just when it was at its most potent, the spell had been broken, and so had Australia’s hearts.
There will, of course, be regrets. There always are. Mainly: What if Kerr had not injured a calf a couple of days before the opening game? But there will be countless other minor queries, too, moments that will haunt Australia’s players for some time to come, before the pride in what they have achieved overtakes the disappointment at what they have not.
What if, in those few minutes after Kerr’s goal, with England drowsy on the ropes and Australia marauding, Kerr had taken one of the three chances she crafted? Or Cortnee Vine had converted the one that fell to her? What if Carpenter had cleared the ball, rather than allowing Hemp to steal it from under her feet? What if Australia had found another goal, rather than Alessia Russo?
It will take some time for those questions to dissipate. “It is heartbreak,” Catley said. “It’s disappointment that it has ultimately ended. We believed we could go all the way.” Once they get away from it, though, Australia will not remember this tournament for what might have been.
It will, instead, cherish the month in which the Matildas served not only to represent their country — all of those old Australian sporting virtues, grit and determination and stubbornness and no little talent, cast on this relatively new canvas — but somehow came to define it, too.
When the game finished, despair swept over Australia’s players. Kerr, in particular, seemed unwilling to leave the field, lingering just by the touchline, unwilling to cross. It ran so deep that, even 20 minutes later, as they conducted their duties with the news media, many of the Matildas struggled to find the words to describe what they had been through, what they were going through.
In the stands, though, tens of thousands of Australian fans remained in place. They had no difficulty finding their voice. The magic had dissipated, but the noise had not. Even in the midst of the bitterest disappointment, it will resonate for some time.
FIFA Women’s World Cup
Spain 2, Sweden 1
England 3, Australia 1
Saturday’s Match for 3rd Place (all times Eastern Standard Time)
Sweden vs. Australia (4 a.m., FOX)
Spain vs. England (6 a.m., FOX)