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World Cup: Hosts Australia shed underdog status

Janek Speight Reporting from Sydney
August 7, 2023

Australia are riding a wave of popularity and hype at this Women's World Cup. Forever an underdog in the world game, the team's belief, ability and results are making a mockery of that tag.

Australia versus Denmark
Hometown hero Caitlin Foord started the party with a first-half goal against Denmark, prompting a deafening roar from fans in SydneyImage: CARL RECINE/REUTERS

They love an underdog in Australia. Steven Bradbury at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The America's Cup of 1983. The Socceroos defeating Uruguay to qualify for a first men's World Cup in 32 years. It only truly makes history if it's a backs-against-the-wall job.

In football, the country has never been at the top. The land Down Under is really just a bunch of battlers when it comes to the round ball game.

It's a trope often embraced by Australian fans. Fighting out unlikely results against the odds is a badge of honor.

Yet the Matildas may just have to start accepting that they're no longer an underdog in world football after crushing Canada 4-0 and dissecting Denmark 2-0 with little bother.

It was only their second knockout win in a World Cup, so the underdog moniker thus far has been fair enough. Now, however, they've shown more than enough to be labeled a contender, if not quite an outright favorite, even if they'd prefer it otherwise.

"I like to classify ourselves as underdogs, no one really expects much from us Aussies and we perform better like that," Ellie Carpenter told DW. "So we're not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We know what's on the line, we just want the public and crowds to keep supporting us."

Of course, it was a different matter after creeping past Ireland and faltering against Nigeria. Alarm bells were ringing and the Matildas were under intense scrutiny and had the pressure of a nation on their shoulders.

Against Denmark, it was a different story. They went into the match as slight favorites and they produced a performance to match such a label.

"It's going to change football in Australia"

Caitlin Foord was on a mission at Stadium Australia, a constant thorn in the red and white Danes. From her scampering runs down the left wing and relentless back-tracking to the last-ditch tackles and nimble feet as she danced around the defense.

It was a masterclass. And it backed up her pre-game promise that the 2023 World Cup was "going to change football in Australia forever".

"It's nice to see where the game's going here, how many girls and boys want to play football. It's just nice to know the game's moving in the right direction," she told media in the mixed zone.

"I think it's already changed," Emily van Egmond told DW.

"You've seen the crowds that all the games are attracting and I think it's just the start for women's football in Australia. Hopefully we can inspire the next generation."

Australian fans at puiblic viewing
The turnout in Austrlia has seen record-breaking attendance figures set in stadiums and at public viewingsImage: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS

Foord slotted in Australia's first goal on 29 minutes after a magical piece of playmaking from Mary Fowler. The stadium lifted with approval after a quiet opening. When the second goal arrived from Hayley Raso in the 70th minute, Foord had helped run Denmark ragged. They were cooked. 

Coach Tony Gustavsson had rustled up the perfect recipe, fielding a 4-4-2 which loaded down Foord's left-wing. They allowed Denmark possession but still managed to control the match without the majority of the ball.

"It wasn't the prettiest of games with the ball, but we definitely controlled it from the mentality point of view and we took our chances. Sometimes that's all it takes in tournament football," Van Egmond said.

And they did it all without a certain team captain.

The loudest roar of the night

When your squad contains the reigning best player in the world, It's also a little tough to hold onto an underdog status. Sam Kerr's calf has been the hottest topic in Australia, a sign of just how much this World Cup has already changed the narrative.

A major news outlet even hired a helicopter to fly over Matildas training leading into the match, desperate to snag any news on the nation's latest darling. That would previously have been unheard of.

When the big screen panned to Kerr on the bench, the crowd roared. When the cameras showed her warming up, you'd have thought Australia had grabbed another goal.

"It was quite exciting hearing how loud people got when they saw her warming up," Mary Fowler told DW. "You couldn't help but smile, even while playing. She means so much to us and means so much to this country and she deserves to receive all that love."

And when she actually came onto the field in the 79th minute, there wasn't a single green-and-gold clad fan that wasn't on their feet screaming their lungs out. It was the loudest cheer of the night.

"It's been really tough but that was amazing," Kerr said of the reception.

"[The media attention] has been the most difficult part. The focus hasn't been on the team, it's been on my calf. And now we can settle that… and stop talking about it. We can start talking about these girls, because they've absolutely smashed it the last few weeks."

And with Kerr on the pitch, the performances and results can surely only keep improving.

"Sammy has the x-factor and she’s a complete game-changer," Emily van Egmond told DW. "All she needs is one moment. To add that into the squad that we already have, it’s looking pretty good isn’t it?"

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Edited by James Thorogood

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor