Australia 1 France 0
Friday night at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne was a reminder of just why the hype is building ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Matildas played to a packed stadium in front of a young and eager audience and gave every one of their fans a first taste of what is to come in the month ahead. This was almost a frenzied atmosphere, and with the football itself giving just enough thrills and spills, the AFL for once was outshone by its little cousin in the self-proclaimed sporting capital of Australia, as records were broken and the French were overthrown on Bastille Day.
A lot of travel and time in airports is going to be a feature of this World Cup, and it was encouraging to see the Jetstar terminal at Sydney adorned with merchandise in the shops and with the occasional advert up on the screens. A comfortable 1pm departure with my partner in life and football tourism Michelle meant no rush to catch the train in the morning and a chance for a quick vin rouge in the airport bar to celebrate le quatorze juillet, before we caught the short flight to Tullamarine.
Traffic was fierce coming into the Docklands, not because of the football, but due to some bus / train replacement malarky, and what should have been a half-hour journey took more than an hour and a half. Dropping our bags in the hotel and transforming like Clark Kent (or perhaps mild-mannered Barry Brown) into match-going Matildas fans, we were on our first beer in Platform 28 along with a big contingent of the Matildas Active crew. The mood was lively, after all it was Friday night and after work. The crowd thinned out as pubgoers started to leave and cross the road to climb the steps up to the stadium, and we joined the throng soon after.
The design of the Docklands Stadium is such that it is flanked by hotels, apartments and office buildings at one end, and the area outside the gate that we arrived at was not particularly big, and was a sea of people without being uncomfortable. We had given ourselves more than enough time to enter the stadium, and set off for our gate after checking out the activations; face-painting, a Lego exhibition and the giant Matildas shirt that was being signed by everyone.
We were directed to our gate, Gate H I think, but we should have checked to see what gate was the last one, as it seemed to be one hell of a walk around the stadium to get there from Gate A. Not being used to an oval stadium was not an excuse, perhaps the pre-match beers were.
The crowd at our gate was quite fierce, but there was an open line for people without bags, so we divided to conquer and I made my way in to get the first round in ahead of the entrance of the players. There was confusion at the bar, as it was one of the new Amazon ‘Just Walk Out’ outlets. I’ve never used one, but I’ve heard all about it. Simply tap your card and $20 is charged, then take whatever you want and walk out. The temptation was there to take loads of stuff, but despite the feeling of it being like an incredible $20 bottomless offer, you would be charged the correct amount on your card at a later date, somehow or other.
Armed with beers and stopping at one of the handy counters (Allianz Stadium take note) to put down my spoils to check the seat number, I was pounced on by a volunteer asking if I could fill out a survey. The timing was bad, but I answered the majority of the questions before excusing myself and heading to where our seats were. As usual, down at the front behind the goal, and with a good size screen at the far end. The many familiar faces were there and the mood was upbeat as the players emerged and the national anthems were belted out.
The noise was good, the seats were all filled, this was a fantastic spectacle. The roof was closed, containing the noise without it being distorted, and the conditions were absolutely ideal for football. Thick puffer jacket cast aside, these were t-shirt conditions, and the songs started up from our section and quickly spread to the adjacent aisles as the players got into position ready to start the game. A Matildas bandanna was across every seat in our section, which was a lovely touch.
France were clad in all blue, not the blue that you normally associate with France, but a more pastel colour, and the Matildas were in their favoured green and gold. The configuration of the stadium meant that we were reasonably close to the action, but the advertising hoardings behind the goal blocked the view of the ball if it was on the ground in the penalty area up at our end. That meant we missed the moment when France finally prised open the Matildas and Grace Goyoro had a glorious chance right in front of us, but we had no idea if it was going in. Thankfully Clare Hunt got herself in the way, but we were expecting the goal to ripple. All that after Australia had been lively up the other end without really threatening.
It happened again soon after too, the Matildas turning into trouble and coughing up the ball in a dangerous position. The cross from the left was straight to Kadidiatou Diani in space, but she was again blocked, our line of sight leaving us praying that the net wouldn’t bulge. The Matildas looked sharp going forward, and a lot of the play was up the left, but again France broke and Goyoro seemed to have beaten Hunt for speed and went down under pressure, but thankfully the referee was not in a benevolent mood and Australia survived.
The first half ended with a crescendo of noise as Sam Kerr teed up a cross, but Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso couldn’t fashion the shot and the ball bounced tamely through to Pauline Peyraud-Magnin. The first half had been a great spectacle, even if some of the football was being played with the tournament ahead in mind. France had dominated, but we’d seen flashes from Australia and had been reminded on a couple of occasions of the electrifying speed of Cortnee Vine. It was time to find a bathroom and do a lap of the stadium to see what this fine venue had to offer.
The first thing to note of the stadium is that the concourse area was probably not quite wide enough to cope with the number of people on the move at half time. Secondly, the queues were enormous for certain outlets, but the biggest queue was for the bathrooms – I certainly hope that the ratio of men’s to women’s facilities has been thought of. Finally, it was great to see all the food and beverage outlets open and running, so the lines did end up moving quickly. Everyone was patient and courteous, the mood you would expect from a women’s football crowd.
The walk around the stadium was longer than usual, the extra circumference meaning that I was back in my seat, or standing at my seat, just on kick off of the second half. The Matildas attacked, and won a corner on the left in front of us. Unbelievably Mini Gorry’s corner went straight out of play – that was a hand-across-the-face moment as the momentum and the stamping of feet in anticipation evaporated in a split second.
France were denied a certain penalty up the far end as Steph Catley bundled into Eugenie Le Sommer, but the absence of VAR and the stubborn mood of the referee let the Matildas off the hook. The replays on the big screen didn’t make for good viewing.
The goal when it came, and I’m sure you’ve watched it a hundred times already, was a cracker. Ellie Carpenter threaded a pass to Raso, who flicked the ball out to the wing for Kyra Cooney-Cross. She slipped in Raso again, whose low ball into the centre was taken by Mary Fowler in her stride and dispatched into the goal with the poise of a seasoned finisher. The noise was terrific, and Fowler, who had just come on, was clearly delighted with her strike. The faces of her teammates suggested that they knew it was a superb goal. Beer flew everywhere in the active area. Western United’s Ben had just turned up and gave the songbook a shake, leading away some chants with vigour and urging the crowd to join in.
The game wasn’t won though, and France continued to press. Tameka Yallop went off injured, but in the final moments of the game, Selma Bacha ended up on the floor after a challenge and the stretcher was summoned from the sidelines, a dreadful sight. Despite some nervy moments at the end of the game, the whistle blew on a Matildas victory, and the players and the fans were pumped for the win. The party continued in the active area, and there was plenty of singing. We love Matildas was the song of the night, to the tune of I Love You Baby. The dreaded Mexican Wave and the Oi Oi chant were in evidence tonight but ignored by all those in the ‘home’ end. Thankfully no one grabbed on to the “What do you think of Tottenham” chant that is so irrelevant and irritating. Nawal was immense as capo, and the groups of seemingly disdainful locals in the nearby seats were eventually won over and accepted the fact that they were in the active area.
The music started thumping from the DJs, the French team did laps at quite a pace, and saluted the crowd who were very generous with their applause. It looked like we wouldn’t see any Matildas players come around, but after their media commitments, the section to our right next to the corner flag was a sea of activity, and a few players made it as far as our section to the delight of the thick mass of youngsters at the front. Boots were tossed into the crowd, t-shirts were fired into a hopeful sea of hands, this was the feelgood factor that we love as football fans. Interaction with the supporters after the game, especially in victory, is important, and this was allowed to happen without the painful security detail that we often see.
There were still a lot of people inside as we headed out into the stadium forecourt. We were a little disoriented and found ourselves heading the wrong way down some steps before realising that we were at the wrong end to get back to the bars and pubs opposite our hotel for the night. We bumped into the FA directors on their way out and said hello, before heading back in the right direction and back into a bar, where we met up with Michelle’s cousin for a catch up.
The night continued as all good away trips tend to, ending up back at Platform 28 with the stragglers, and then inevitably on to the Crown for an early morning dinner. Boarding at 7am was achieved against all odds, and arriving back to Sydney after an hour’s sleep, the World Cup feels were even more pronounced; the walk in the warm winter’s morning sunshine under Sydney Harbour Bridge, past a flurry of FIFA Women’s World Cup preparation to the Football Writers Festival was like being on holiday in our own city.
What an away day! It’s been a while, but it was well worth the wait. Not long now until the next one, and there is a mountain of football to come before we head to Brisbane to see our girls play against Nigeria. We love Matildas…