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World Cup: Unlocking Australia's football potential

July 20, 2023

More than 70,000 fans witnessed history in the making as Australia defeated Ireland 1-0 at a home World Cup. The sport has struggled garnering respect Down Under but this tournament could prove a game-changer.

FIFA Frauen-Weltmeisterschaft 2023 Australien gegen Republik Irland
Image: Ryan Byrne/Inpho Photography/IMAGO

Tears, spilled beers, elation, disbelief and a fulfiled fantasy that not too far in the past appeared a pipe dream. Stadium Australia in Sydney was a nervous wreck of emotions as the Matildas began their World Cup journey in front of 75,784 fans adorned in green and gold.

As Steph Catley pumped her fists in the air following an expertly-taken penalty, Australian football fans released a long-drawn breath and erupted in a united roar.

It was a record crowd for a women’s football match in Australia, which easily surpassed the previous record of 50,629 set just a week earlier. And the 1-0 victory over Ireland ensured those fans went home with memories for life.

Waving high and proud above the country’s sporting heroes was the Australian Aboriginal flag, representing the original custodians of this land. And packing out the stands were Australians of various migrant backgrounds, whose diversity has helped build a modern nation.

For rising star striker Mary Fowler, who has Irish and Papua New Guinean roots, showcasing that multicultural society to the world is a proud moment.

"Australia is quite special in that sense. It was nice tonight to step out on the field and wear the Australia jersey, but to be able to verse a country that I very much feel connected to," she told DW after the game.

'It's an exciting time for football'

This night was of course a moment for all football fans, no matter their background, to bask in glory that has been a long time coming. Glory that hasn’t arrived easily and which is thanks to countless pioneers who loved the game amongst all the ridicule.

Former men’s international Johnny Warren was perhaps Australian soccer’s biggest advocate, pioneer, and fan. He strongly believed football would one day rule the roost in Australia and famously said that he wanted his legacy to be: "I told you so".

"We always believed football could be like this in Australia," midfielder Katrina Gorry said after asked about Warren’s iconic words. "It always takes time unfortunately but I think we were able to showcase what we really have in Australia. It’s an exciting time for football."

The game may never reach the zenith predicted by Warren but hosting football’s biggest event is a massive opportunity to grow the game.

"The generations coming through, they’re not going to have to fight the same battles we did," Gorry added. "And hopefully we can pave the way for them and change football in Australia forever." 

Fans of all ages made up a 75,000-strong crowd in Sydney.
Fans of all ages made up a 75,000-strong crowd in Sydney.Image: Peter Dovgan/Uk Sports Pics Ltd/IMAGO

'We haven’t seen anything like this since the Olympics'

Football in Australia has never had an easy ride. From being derided as a game for women, immigrants and homosexuals to the Matildas of 1999 needing to pose nude to raise funds, it’s been a constant battle for relevance.

With a population of just 25 million, Australia is a saturated sporting market and there have traditionally been four major sports: cricket, AFL/Aussie Rules, rugby league and rugby union. Football is fifth in the pecking order.

"It’s pretty wild when you think about how far it’s come. It’s just so nice to see Australians really getting behind this code," Matildas fan Fiona said.

"We haven’t seen anything like this since the Olympics, it’s epic," fellow fan Ash added.

"I caught the bus here and just to see that it’s three-quarters full with girls and women, that’s also just so cool. The game’s got so technical and has come so far, despite the lack of funding."

Which is why there’s a lot of pressure on the Matildas to have a good run at the tournament. If they can perform amid the hype, the crowds will stick around and state governments may be convinced to pour more funds into development of the game in Australia.

Steph Catley scores for Australia against Ireland
Steph Catley, captain in Sam Kerr's absence, scored her first World Cup goal — the winning goal — from the spot.Image: Noe Llamas/SPP/IMAGO

Australia prevail in Kerr's absence

On the field, the first half performance against Ireland didn’t really go far enough to match the hype. A cagey affair was missing the flair of the injured superstar Sam Kerr, even though her replacement Fowler showed glimpses of magical footwork.

But the Matildas picked up the script in the second half, Steph Catley racing away after netting the decisive penalty in the 52nd minute. Her teammates swarmed after her, the bench was up and about on the very edge of the touchline, and the crowd awoke from their slumber.

A goal was enough, despite Ireland forcing a few scrambling clearances from the Matildas in the final 15 minutes, with goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold producing a vital stop at the death.

Australia star player Sam Kerr
The only sour note for Australia was the absence of injured star player Sam Kerr, who will miss the first two games.Image: DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP/IMAGO

Momentum key as Matildas target dream run

Enthusiasm is high in Australia with one million tickets sold across 35 matches and almost every game showing "low availability" on FIFA’s official ticketing site.

Combined with the 300,000 tickets sold in New Zealand, the target of 1.5 million is within sight, which would smash the current record held by the 1999 World Cup in the United States.

"I didn’t think football had so many supporters," Gorry said. "But we’ve put on a show and across the years we’ve brought more and more supporters along with us."

For young girls, and boys, being able to watch the best footballers in the world, in their own backyard, could change the landscape.

"Being able to engage and transition girls into the sport is really important," Emere Bell, who coaches youth teams on the Central Coast, said.

"It’s incredible for them to be able to see the world’s biggest stars right here. To see the World Cup here, Down Under, and in New Zealand, it’s just unreal."

The football feast is set to go on for another month as the world’s best call Australia home for this tournament. The hope now is that when it’s all over, the buzz sticks around. If the Matildas can lift the trophy, it would be an easy sell.

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor