First-half blitz sees Matildas home

A devastating first half of fast-running, direct football from the Matildas blew away their opponents Spain in the big-ticket fixture of the 2023 edition of the Cuppa Nations at Sydney’s Commbank Stadium on Sunday. The visiting powerhouse was wasteful in front of goal until late in the game when they clawed back two goals to come close, and the Matildas Active fans will be wondering what they have to do to attract a goal at their end after seeing all nine goals scored up the other end in the last two fixtures. Only a seismic shift in form will see Australia fail to lift the trophy, and Wednesday night in Newcastle will offer coach Tony Gustavsson an opportunity to see what else he has in his locker ahead of this year’s big dance in July.

This was a hot weekend in Sydney, where storms reminded us how February rolls in this part of the world, and by late afternoon conditions were starting to get hot and sticky, without a breath of wind around Commbank Stadium. This game was shoe-horned into a day of NPL football, grading and club friendlies, and a last-minute decision was made to drive, running the gauntlet of Parramatta matchday traffic. Luckily there was hardly any, and we were in the Leagues club car park by 5.15pm, not enough time for a pre-match drink or food, but enough time to check out the activations outside the main gate of Commbank Stadium.

The merchandise stall was very busy today, an extra incentive being the introduction of some of the pride merch, and there were lots of familiar faces, ex-teammates of Aurelia’s NPL club, and there was a good vibe as we embarrassed the teenage kids with our interest in the activations.

We were in good hands today, club teammate Jeff looking after the policing in the Active area, and we stocked up on stadium food and drink before descending into the mosh-pit of the Matildas Active area behind the goal in the RBB. The players were completing the warm-ups and a healthy contingent of photographers was in place, surely a sign of the increasing interest in the Matildas ahead of the World Cup later this year. The field got a thorough soaking as the players left the field to get ready for kick off. It was quite hot in the stadium, and the added fire-breathing machines located within two metres of the safe-standing enclosure were almost hot enough to singe your eyebrows.

The stadium seating disguises empty seats perfectly, but by the time the players emerged, there was good coverage of the bottom section of the Eastern Stand and the upper tier of the home end was also looking quite full. Just imagine this place being packed to the rafters, and that’s what the Women’s World Cup will be like. I simply don’t understand why all those fans wouldn’t be here today for a match-up with a major player like Spain.

The Matildas Active crew were here, with drums and flags, positioned slightly higher up to get a more elevated view, and with expert capo Michelle installed in place at the front, this was going to be an almighty sing-song for the duration of the game. Fans from around the country were here and this felt like a first rehearsal for the upcoming World Cup.

The welcome to country was clear and crisp, the national anthems were superb, and as the players lined up for their pre-match photo and huddle, it was time to start pumping out the chants.

Now, at this stage, I’d like to know what Football Australia is doing to promote an active Matildas crowd for the World Cup. The FIFA ticketing process only allows for ticket-holders to nominate for a category of seat, and only when they’ve secured a seat can they join their seats with other ticket applications. There is no guarantee of seating position, and what I am anticipating is a group of Matildas Active fans dotted around the Category C ticket areas, beseiged by angry mums and dads who want to sit and enjoy the game with their kids, unable to comprehend why the Active fans want to stand and sing and be together in a group.

I go back to the men’s World Cup last year when Qatar made their bow in the opening ceremony game – the Qatari fans had a whole section behind the goal for their active fans, and they were making a real go at creating an unprecedented atmosphere for their team in the first match of their own World Cup. Are we going to have the same situation for our Active fans? I hope that plans are underway to make this happen, otherwise we’re missing a trick and the sight of a thousand or so Matildas fans going crazy, singing and dancing, will be confined to the pubs and clubs before and after the games.

Today’s game started at a terrific pace. Spain looked threatening whenever they got the ball down our end, but it was the Matildas who took the lead in spectacular fashion. Hayley Raso, who dominated proceedings in Gosford, cut inside and fed a ball across to Cortnee Vine. She took aim and delivered an incredible shot from outside the area that seared into the goal. What a start, and only ten minutes gone. It wasn’t long before Raso again delivered, this time from the left, and Kerr’s header looped high into the air. The Spanish defender got it all wrong, and the lurking Clare Polkinghorne turned and lashed the ball home across the keeper from the angle. Only fifteen minutes played, Australia 2 Spain 0. Unbelievable.

Spain had chances, one shot dragged harmlessly wide at the far post when the player was free to pick her spot, and they could only flash a shot across goal when well placed. Mackenzie Arnold was busy and had to make two excellent stops in the first half, throwing herself at the attackers feet and then blocking with her legs in an all-action performance.

Sam Kerr had a header ruled out for offside, which may or may not have been offside, and the bullet header was classic Kerr. With the half winding down to half time, Steph Catley teased in an inviting cross and Caitlin Foord was in the right place at the right time to power in another header and Australia had a three-goal lead.

There was time for Kerr to race away and drill a shot just past the post which would have blown the scoreline out to epic proportions, but three goals was just reward for a fabulous first half. Vine had been rampant down the left, Mini Gorry had played out of her skin in midfield, playing the enforcer role, and Kyra Cooney-Cross looked back to her silky best. This had been a devastating first half, and whilst Spain could and should have scored goals, Australia had dominated.

Half time was a chance to catch up with others in the Active section, and the players emerged again while the half-time heroes and warm-ups were still winding down.

The Matildas Active crowd had been magnificent in the first half, although it’s never known whether or not the stadium can hear. It was clear at the start of the second half that they could be heard all around Commbank Stadium, and the Viking clap and the call and response could be heard reverberating all the way around the stadium as the rest of the fans joined in. As always a Spanish word or two from the capo unveiled a number of Spanish-speakers in the crowd who hollered between themselves for a moment, but this was all about Australia. Our beloved Matildas were bossing the game and the crowd were lapping it up. The rhythm of the game changed as the subs rolled on and off, security got involved to get kids off the barriers in the safe-standing area; we were waiting for our capo to be the focus of their attention next, and the police arrived just to make sure that the security was heeded and no young’uns had a mishap that would end in a lawsuit.

Spain were back in the game with fifteen to go, and it was a terrific finish from their number 19 Olga, firing through a crowd of players from Vine territory. With VAR we may have seen the goal chalked off for an offside player interfering with play, but this is the pure game and there was no such nonsense. A goal had been coming from Spain, and it was justified.

The Matildas were heading for the win though, there was a fun moment when the referee booked the Spanish coach to huge cheers, and Arnold was also given a hefty bump that earned the Spanish striker a yellow card. Arnold in fact had made a string of great saves, and one in particular when she palmed the ball round the post from a certain goal had the fans on their feet. Little did she know that she was keeping Australia in the lead, as a second goal was to arrive, albeit deep into injury time, and it was a sweet strike from Redondo at the near post.

All of a sudden the Matildas fans were anxious, and the kick-off after the goal would be a gauge as to whether panic had set in. It hadn’t, and the Aussie maintained control until the final whistle sounded, a 3-2 result probably the right result on the balance of play, but after a first half of total dominance, it might be a little too close for comfort for coach Tony G.

The players and staff assembled for their massive huddle in the centre of the park, as the kids in the stadium crowded along the front barrier of the stands all round the stadium, in anticipation of seeing their stars up close or grabbing a selfie. The players then set off on a lap of honour and the media interviews started, Cortnee Vine receiving what looked like the player of the match award, Clare Polkinghorne being feted for her record-breaking appearance last Thursday, before Mary Fowler came to see the fans and left with a bunch of flowers after signing a few shirts. The rest of the players stuck to the area next to the tunnel, away from the majority of fans, and it was a little disappointing for the youngsters in the crowd not to at least have a little interaction with the players. That’s the peril of the big city weekend games though, too many fans, not enough time.

The flags and banners now all dismantled, and the post-match pub for the Active fans decided upon, it was time to get out of the stadium, our policemen friend telling us he wanted to get home to watch MAFS; we weren’t in any rush, knowing how the traffic goes out of the car park, but we were just too slow to get some of the free Cadbury’s chocolate that was being handed out at the gate. I bumped into an old friend who asked how you get involved with Matildas Active. The only answer I could give was to simply get your arse into the Active bay and lend a hand with the singing and chanting, it’s that simple. Clearly more people would love to be involved, they just don’t know where to start. I urge everyone to sample the Active area at least once – you might not enjoy it, you might want to see the action from a better angle, but there’s a high chance you will enjoy it, and that’s where the love-affair will begin.

Sure enough, the cars were bumper to bumper as we got to our car, but it thinned out quickly, and without scraping any paint off the doors around the tight corners, we were out and into Parramatta en route to home.

Today had been fabulous. A little rushed, due to all the other football in our lives, but a real tonic. One more game of the Cup Of Nations to go, and that’s on Wednesday night in Newcastle. See you all there for a final look at the Matildas, as they go into their third game of this World Cup group stage simulation event. Sunnyside Tavern for a beer beforehand.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: