Matildas ignite Australia’s football passion

Australia 0 France 0 (7-6 on penalties)

A tropical winter’s day in Queensland’s capital greeted football fans from all corners of Australia. The news that Sam Kerr was not starting this FIFA World Cup 2023 quarter final game at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium was hardly unexpected and predictions of tonight’s outcome were realistic in the pub beforehand on the busy Caxton Street, the road that descends to the stadium. Most fans were happy that a tricky round of 16 had been negotiated and anything more was a bonus. Persisting with the safety blanket of Clare Polkinghorne on the bench, and with Mackenzie Arnold and Emily Van Egmond walking the tightrope of a yellow card along with captain Caitlin Foord, this was a consistent starting line-up that coach Tony Gustavsson’s hoped to be proven as match-winning.

Both teams were relaxed in the warm-up, in contrast to the party atmosphere outside as the active fans descended from the Lord Alfred Hotel in full voice, ready to fill Brisbane Stadium with noise. With the blinding sun dropping below the skyline in time for the pre-match routine, conditions were beyond perfect for an incredible night of world cup football. The latter stages of the competition brought bigger flags to the field, the central Women’s World Cup flag flanked by the flags of the two countries. This was the big time, The welcome to country gave a warm ‘bonjour’ to our visitors from France, it was heartfelt and jovial. The crowd sang along to the aboriginal version of Waltzing Matilda, the substitutes clapped along with smiles on their faces and the elder signed off with a ‘woohoo’. This was a celebration of all things Australian.

The Matildas did a final run through as the French team huddled together in the centre of their half – if these were mind games, if this was Australia showing that they were going to work harder than their opponents, it was noted by the crowd. The tight-knit circle of starting eleven and substitutes was a contrast to the ramshackle French team. The full-house, save for a few empty seats for the late-comers, gave a fabulous countdown and this fascinating quarter-final tie was born.

Australia. United. Together.

Australia were not going to be overawed by the occasion and looked comfortable in possession, but we did see mistakes early on as Ellie Carpenter gave the ball away cheaply with telegraphed passes and Alana Kennedy sliced wildly into the air before making the wise decision not to haul down the electric Kadidiatou Diani. Selma Bacha found Carpenter too fast and her early dangerous runs weren’t seen after the first 15 minutes. The referee was being extra picky tonight, warning the players standing in front of the throw-ins, but she did nothing when Kyra Cooney-Cross was raked down the back of the heel, and also let Hayley Raso off after clattering into her opponent by the France bench.

The sight of Mini Gorry and Wendie Renard racing to a ball drew gasps from the crowd, such a mis-match in stature, but the tenacious Australian midfielder did well in direct conflict with her giant opponent. Sam Kerr and Charli Grant were their usual double-act on the bench, providing the laughter as the camera panned onto them mid-conversation. France should have been in the lead when a corner was drilled back into the area and Maelle Lakrar was left unmarked with a simple tap-in from two yards out, but managed to miskick and sent the ball harmlessly wide. Eugenie Le Sommer managed to get clear too, but Arnold saved the deflected shot, and Gorry gave away a sloppy ball in midfield and a 4 on 3 situation was wasted by Les Bleues.

The moment of the half saw Hayley Raso race up the right, but stretching for the cross, her ball in lacked pace. That caught out the defence, including goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, as they wondered what to do with the stray ball; Emily Van Egmond muscled in and dug out a cross to the unmarked Mary Fowler, in front of the empty goal, whose shot was athletically deflected over by a flying Elisa De Almeida, a brilliant piece of defending. The resulting corner landed straight at Raso at the far post, but she couldn’t get anything on it and the chance was gone.

Dreamboat French coach Herve Renard was becoming agitated, both teams were giving the ball away, Australia survived when Arnold punched unconvincingly at a cross and had to make a smart save to push the ball around the post from the ensuing melee. The crowd was feeding off scraps, rising to any forward momentum from the home team, and a Viking clap enveloped the whole stadium as half time approached. Only a single minute of additional time was testament to the incredible entertainment that we had seen over the first half of play. There was little time to draw breath.

What a spectacle. Football is amazing.

Australia were straight onto the front foot as the second half started, a tame clearance by Peyraud-Magnin fell to Fowler, who ignored Foord out wide to shoot, a corner scant reward for a glorious position. At the other end, Gorry being trapped in possession was to become an unwanted feature, Clare Hunt coming to her rescue, but the crowd rose as one soon after when Kerr replaced Van Egmond. We now had the lead actor role filled for the remainder of the second half. Australia were on the front foot, the active fans were noisy, Kerr combined with Raso and the stadium was at boiling point. When Fowler found herself on the penalty spot again, her shot was true but Peyraud-Magnin saved again with her feet.

Australia were dominating, Kerr and Fowler with the half chances, but the game swung in France’s favour, Gorry penalised harshly for a handball, Hunt did brilliantly to clear up and the France dugout was becoming increasingly wound up. Vicki Becho was superb off the bench for France, racing down the right and causing so many problems; Gorry managed to smack Le Sommer in the nose with her boot, drawing blood and evoking memories of Alana Kennedy in Canberra when she checked out her new nose on the big screen. Carpenter and Kerr romped upfield but couldn’t unlock the miserly French defence, and Diani drilled in a cross that may have hit Clare Hunt’s hand, but the referee was unmoved and happy to play on.

An exciting moment up the Matildas right then almost unlocked the France defence, Kerr racing at the defence and playing in an exquisite early ball, with the outside of the foot, but Foord couldn’t reach it.  When defender Lakrar stretched and conceded a corner, the noise levels at Suncorp Stadium were at their peak. The ball eventually fell for Fowler again, and once more her shot was blocked. Carpenter got into a good position but chose to shoot when the better option was out wide, but this was a Matildas team full of confidence and she was right to have a go. As the four minutes of added time ticked away and with Fowler having been sliced down in midfield with no free-kick given, nerves were understandably jangling, and Becho threatened one last time before the 90 minutes ended.

Extra-time was not what was expected tonight, but the crowd were all happy to see more of this marvellous contest.

Gorry finally got a yellow after an over-the-ball challenge in the middle of the park as the 30 minutes of extra time got underway, and when the tricky Bacha hit the ground again after minimal contact from Carpenter, eliciting a spray from the Matildas defender, the crowd was pumped up even more. Becho took the ball out of play before crossing and still won the corner, and there was a huge sense of injustice. There was a deathly silence when Alana Kennedy’s wayward header beat a flat-footed Arnold on the line to score what looked like a disastrous own-goal from the phantom corner. Thankfully the referee had seen the pull by Renard that had caused the mayhem and the crowd roared to life once more. Raso made way for Cortnee Vine to a standing ovation, and Vine almost made the breakthrough, latching on to Foord’s deft cross to poke the ball just wide. The referee levelled the ledger by awarding a goal kick when Catley clearly touched the ball out, and the first half of extra-time ended with Arnold struggling to field an innocuous cross, grabbing the ball at the second attempt to the relief of the crowd.

There were 15 minutes left to find a winner and Australia went straight at the France defence from the kick off. France responded when a Diani shot was blocked and fell to Becho, who fired in a superb effort. Arnold flung herself to her right and pushed the ball around the post, a brilliant save. Catley was then in the right place as she hacked the ball clear, surrounded by French players with Arnold beaten. Kennedy’s concussion check diffused the situation, but Bacha danced into the area from the right and went down, all eyes on the referee to see if she would allow the goal kick to be taken and dispel the fear of the VAR spectre. An astute substitution saw Tameka Yallop come on for Cooney-Cross, while Renard recovered from a boot to the face from Vine. Vine did brilliantly to prevent a corner, before the sparkling Bacha blazed over when well placed. Catley won a corner with one minute left of extra time, and the wall of noise was incredible. Tony was shaking hands already with Herve, but there was plenty of drama still left. Yallop was caught out and Becho brought another save out of Arnold.

With penalties looming, replacement goalkeeper Solene Durand was on the sidelines. Memories of Andrew Redmayne and Tim Krul were brought back, France had their secret weapon, but she would have something to do before then, Kerr leaping in front of her to glance a header wide. Four minutes of additional time were up and Le Sommer, with her nose rearranged by Gorry, raced down the right. With echoes of 1966, a ball boy racing onto the field to collect a stray ball as France attacked at pace down the same side, Le Sommer shot straight at Arnold, who batted the final shot away and we were all of a sudden in the 50/50-chance saloon of penalties.

We’ve got this!

Tony rallied his team one last time. There was nothing left on the field. The players had given everything, yet had the lottery of a penalty shootout to endure. The stadium was filled with loud chatter and expectation. This was a shootout like no other. Firstly, the Matildas had the advantage, but that was cancelled out when Catley’s penalty was saved. When Eve Perisset’s shot, the fifth penalty for France, was touched onto the post by Arnold, Australia had the chance to wrap up the win. Arnold herself stepped up. Her well-hit strike hit the post to disbelief around the stadium. The pressure penalties continued, Australia always with the pressure of having to score to continue in the tournament. The ninth penalty taker for France, Kenza Dali, had her shot saved by Arnold, but the referee ordered a retake. She saved it again. That gave Clare Hunt the chance to be the unlikely hero. As Suncorp Stadium prepared to rise as one, her penalty was somehow saved and we were back to parity. Would we see the whole team take a penalty?

No, we wouldn’t. Becho’s shot hit the post, giving Australia another opportunity to wrap up the game. Step forward Cortnee Vine, wearing a puzzled expression that suggested “hey, what’s the fuss about?” and she rolled the ball to Durand’s left. The crowd went wild, the players raced to congratulate each other. Australia had won. History had been made, an Australian team in the semi-finals of a World Cup, truly a remarkable feat.

Celebrations waiting to be unleashed

The players were stunned afterwards when talking to the media. Cortnee Vine had the look of someone who knew they had done something good, but had just not accepted that it was real. She could have burst out in laughter or collapsed in tears at any moment, it was an amazing moment.

Did I do good?

Naturally, a balmy eveing on Caxton Street and a moment in football history went hand in hand and apparently there was another quarter-final on. Most people were still celebrating well into the early hours with little regard for their early flights back home. This was the night when the Matildas won their place in the hearts of every Australian. Whether you like football or not, it’s place at the top of the sporting food chain cannot be denied, and we have many more seminal moments like this to come in this country’s football revolution. Remember that this was a goalless draw. How boring! See you on Wednesday!

Australians singing in a car park at midnight.

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