Australia lost its semifinal, but won its Women’s World Cup going away

Sam Kerr (R) and the Matildas showed Australia, and the world, how far women's soccer has come. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Pizza Hut and Uber could not have been further from the minds of the Matildas as they trudged around Stadium Australia, defeated. Their eyes stared sullenly into chewed-up grass. Their palms cradled faces, concealing disappointment. They had wanted to win this Women’s World Cup, their World Cup. Instead, they’d bowed out in the semifinals, beaten Wednesday by England.

But in the gloomy aftermath, when their heads finally lifted, and their gazes scanned the cavernous stands, they saw their legacy.

They saw thousands of the 75,784 fans who’d turned this towering venue into a madhouse, many of whom hung around to salute players long after a final whistle disrupted their dream.

And if they paused, allowing their minds to roam, they could see how far they’ve come.

It was just last decade that some of these very same players worked at pizza chains or as Uber drivers; as high school teacher aides or at retail stores. They had to, because Australian women’s soccer had been marginalized for a century and couldn’t financially support them. They and their predecessors toiled in obscurity, subsisting on passion, not pay. They won their first Asian championship in 2010, then returned to part-time jobs.

But they toiled and toiled, fighting for themselves and their sport, for present and futures. The sport’s Australian gatekeepers gradually climbed aboard, matching passion with belief and dollars. They backed their women’s national team, and bid for this 2023 World Cup; once they won the right to co-host it, they went all-in. They dressed up city centers and bought billboards. They did what longtime women’s soccer evangelists have always urged: They promoted their tournament and their team relentlessly.

And throughout this magical month Down Under, everybody reveled in what their investment created.

It created something that multiple players called “unimaginable,” a potent elixir of national pride and unifying vigor. It peaked at 9:19 p.m. Wednesday when the face of the movement, Sam Kerr, scored a wondrous goal and public squares across Australia erupted.

It was quantifiable, with attendance records and mind-boggling viewership numbers, with jersey sales and even with water usage patterns. It was palpable, inescapable on strolls through Melbourne or Sydney. It was for everyone, regardless of age or gender or race or sexual orientation.

And for women’s sports’ “true believers,” as legendary Australian soccer executive Moya Dodd wrote, it was validating.

Even in semifinal defeat, it was proof of concept, a vindication of past struggles and an undeniable case for future investment — in Australia and elsewhere.

“We're very disappointed that we lost,” Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson said Wednesday. “But hopefully we won something else. We won the heart and the passion for this game in this country.”

Rise of the Matildas: From 'Female Socceroos' to World Cup co-hosts

Their victory had been over 100 years in the making, and like most landmark victories in women’s sports, it was delayed by the men in charge. Women’s soccer sprouted steadily in the early 20th century in Australia. In 1921, 10,000 people turned up to watch a match in Brisbane. Soon thereafter, however, British authorities deemed the game “quite unsuitable for females” and outlawed it. Australia didn’t officially follow their lead, but culturally and functionally, its shunning of the women’s game had the same impact.

So the game lived on in anonymity. For decades, it persisted in darkness, surviving on the dedication of volunteers.

Its rebirth began, slowly, in the 1970s. But when the Australian women’s national team played its first official friendly, in October 1979, the Sydney Morning Herald didn’t even bother to preview it. Next-day coverage buried the score while focusing on the players’ femininity.

“You were considered a bit of a circus freak,” said Dodd, who joined the team in the 1980s.

You were also forced to train on pitch-side gravel. You wore hand-me-down jerseys or makeshift uniforms with taped-on numbers. And if you wanted to play internationally, in the late 20th century, you not only didn’t get compensated; you often had to pay for the privilege.

With funding and opportunity scarce, the “Female Socceroos” — as the national team was called before its “Matildas” rebrand — failed to qualify for the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. In subsequent years, they ran fundraisers to drum up money — because Football Australia, their national governing body, didn’t give them much or any. In 1999, they posed for and published a nude calendar — a last resort to drum up both publicity and financial support. By the mid-2000s — by the time all 23 of the 2023 Matildas were born — they hadn’t won a World Cup game or even an iota of mainstream attention.

By the time Kerr and other current stars debuted in and around 2009, they still existed in dual shadows, obscured by men’s soccer and by more popular sports such as rugby and Australian rules football.

Fans of Australia cheer during the FIFA Women's World Cup match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on Aug. 16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Gao Meng/VCG via Getty Images)
Fans of Australia cheer during the FIFA Women's World Cup match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on Aug. 16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Gao Meng/VCG via Getty Images)

So they played in mostly empty stadiums. Defender Ellie Carpenter, now 23, remembers watching a game when she was 12, “and there were 300 people there." There were no replica jerseys for sale and, for some girls, no youth teams to play for.

But all along, there were toilers, fighters — on the field and off it.

“For years, for decades they told us nobody cared,” Ann Odong, now the Matildas’ media manager, wrote in a recent tweet. “We didn’t believe them.”

There were countless names the average fan will never know, and front and center, there were fierce players. In 2010, they negotiated a basic collective bargaining agreement. “In 2013,” they said in a powerful video last month, “we signed a new deal to make sure we got our laundry done for us.”

In 2015, they put part-time jobs on hold to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, then went on strike for better pay and working conditions. After a boycotted U.S. tour and a two-month dispute, they won it. In subsequent years, they continued to push, and now, ever since 2019, they and Australia’s men’s team have received equal revenue shares and equitable support.

“Now,” Carpenter said, “we’re treated as serious professionals, with fairness and respect that women deserve.”

And now, uncoincidentally, they’re more successful than ever before.

They were also one prong of Football Australia’s 2023 World Cup strategy. The tournament’s broader commercial success was the other, but the two were “interconnected,” as FA CEO James Johnson said at a recent briefing. So they poured money and energy into both. With FIFA finally on board, no longer blinded to the Women’s World Cup’s commercial potential, and now investing intentionally in its growth, this 2023 edition was far more visible and attractive than France 2019 or any that came before. And the byproducts of that investment unspooled across Australia this summer.

‘Congratulations to all of you who refused to quit’

The byproducts were capacity crowds at stadiums and public fan festivals, but also the emblems that dotted everyday life. They began with airport signage and advertisements plastered along prominent walkways. All of it — the player images projected onto skyscrapers, the years of digital brand-building — fueled a gloriously organic buzz. It spread from train stations to coffee shops, from teenage boys to grandmothers, from salons to stuffy office buildings.

“I’ve spent the last three weeks in a sort of dreamlike state,” a Guardian columnist wrote, “feeling strange as people at work talk about ‘the game last night,’ and they mean one that women played.”

Those women, the Matildas, felt it at airports and en route to team buses. They felt it when cameras and unprecedented coverage flocked to them, and when ticket requests flooded their phones. They saw it on social media and on every newspaper’s front page. They felt it even when Kerr, their captain, picked up a calf injury on the eve of the tournament; and even when they lost their second game to Nigeria.

They felt it ahead of their quarterfinal on a stroll through Brisbane, when passersby whipped out phones and diners burst into chants and cheers.

“We were swarmed by the public,” defender Clare Hunt said, and that’s when she realized: “Oh my God, this is actually happening.”

Later that weekend, they took the field for a quarterfinal against France, and more than a quarter of their country watched them. Australians watched them from parks and famous tennis arenas, from Aussie rules stadiums and public squares. They watched on TVs and tablets, on phones and airplane seatbacks. Channel 7 pushed back its news bulletin to show the quarterfinal on its flagship station. The Australian Football League pushed back kickoff of a crucial late-season game in Melbourne to accommodate the Matildas — and when the quarterfinal’s venture into extra time and penalties undermined plans, some of the nearly 70,000 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground escaped to the concourse to watch the shootout on TV.

It was “the biggest night of sport since Sydney 2000,” a Channel 7 executive said — and although ratings are difficult to compare across eras, many believed it was also the most-watched program of any kind since Cathy Freeman’s gold-medal-winning 400-meter run at those Olympics.

Four days later, the semifinal was even bigger, reaching a peak TV audience of 11.15 million — over 42% of the country's population.

It was all unprecedented and unfathomable for players who’d grown up in the shadows, without celebrated female soccer players to idolize. And it inspired an intoxicating thought: If these Matildas could do this without role models, what might the next generation do after watching them?

They have also surely inspired more funding. They know that money has been a key ingredient in their rise, and surely, even when the World Cup buzz dies down, it will continue to flow. “This is not the end of something, this needs to be the start of something,” Gustavsson said. Kerr, speaking shortly after her semifinal heartbreak, advocated for continued investment as well.

But they hardly needed to speak about it. For one magical month, and over countless long years, they’d fashioned an argument as compelling as could be.

For decades, they asked Australia and the world to unlock their potential, because they knew it was limitless, and countless people told them no.

But as Odong wrote, “We didn’t believe them. Now they believe us. Congratulations to all of you who refused to quit.”