Australia’s magical World Cup run reaches semis after wildest penalty shootout in tournament history

Australia players celebrate after winning the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Australia and France in Brisbane, Australia, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

It took 20 penalties, multiple posts and French agony.

It took the longest and wildest shootout in World Cup history, men’s or women’s.

But at the end of a quarterfinal marathon, with 49,000 fans standing in Brisbane, Australia stormed into the 2023 Women’s World Cup semifinals in ecstasy.

For 120 minutes on a Saturday evening, the nation had risen and fell with a back-and-forth game. After goal-line clearances and stunning saves somehow kept it scoreless, a penalty shootout offered up a lifetime of drama.

Both keepers made saves. In Round 5, Mackenzie Arnold made a second, tipping Ève Périsset’s strike onto the post. Arnold herself then stepped up for a would-be winner — but also pinged the post.

So on went the marathon. In Round 6, Grace Geyoro and Katrina Gorry powered in their penalties. In Round 7, France’s Sakina Karchaoui smashed hers in off the crossbar. In Round 8, Australia’s Ellie Carpenter snuck hers in off the left post.

In Round 9, Arnold saved from Kenza Dali — but a video review annulled her heroics because her feet had left the goal line a split-second too soon.

Then, on the retake, she denied Dali again, putting Australia on the brink of history.

But French keeper Solène Durand, who’d entered the match as a 120th-minute substitute specifically for the shootout, kept out Clare Hunt’s would-be winner with a remarkably strong left hand.

Then up stepped 19-year-old Vicki Bècho, who’d helped swing the balance of the game in France’s favor as a second-half substitute.

She'd nearly won it with a goal in regulation, but “we came up against a Goliath of a goalie," French coach Hervé Renard later said.

In the shootout, she sent that goalie, Arnold, the wrong way — but struck the base of the post.

So up stepped Cortnee Vine, who, with the 20th take of the shootout, incited the wild celebrations.

Her teammates sped toward her as French counterparts froze at the midfield line, hearts and bodies broken.

Australia coach Tony Gustavsson wept as 49,000 friends in Brisbane and probably millions elsewhere erupted.

They erupted in Sydney, where thousands had gathered at Tumbalong Park and Olympic Park.

They erupted in Melbourne, where flares immediately ignited at Federation Square.

They erupted all over Brisbane, hours after an inspiring send-off outside the team hotel.

“Thank you!” Gustavsson bellowed into a camera minutes later. “You are part of this win. … You belong to this team tonight. Every single person in this country.”

They, the people of Australia, had long since won this World Cup, the grandest and buzziest Women's World Cup ever. They'd kindled it with passion, with packed stadiums and raucous roars. They'd shattered attendance records and made soccer inescapable in everyday life, to a degree that no Women's World Cup host ever had before.

And now, they, Australia, have done what no Women's World Cup host had done since 2003, and what they have never done: Reach the semifinals.

They met plenty of French resistance. For 120 minutes, they were kept at bay by French keeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, and by the lunging thigh of defender Élisa de Almeida.

In extra time, it was France that ascended and seemed more likely to find an elusive winner. Becho nearly beat Arnold. Defenders scrambled balls away from danger. The Australian net actually rippled, but an own goal was ruled out for a foul. The breakthrough never came.

In the end, Renard said, "it was 50-50, but the destiny chose Australia."

He later added, via a translator: "We played a quarterfinal against an entire nation."

That nation watched on phones, on TVs, on big screens in major city centers. It watched with sons and daughters, with parents and friends. It emoted right alongside the players, who gripped one another during the shootout to quell nerves.

And then it celebrated just like coaches and Football Australia officials did, joyfully, chaotically.

The shootout, Gustavsson said, had been an "emotional roller coaster."

The feeling afterward, Arnold said, was "unreal."

At the postgame news conference, Australian reporters teared up asking questions.

The players, Gustavsson said, "represent so much more than 90 minute[s of] football. All 224 alumni were with us out there. All the little kids that this team wanna inspire, the next generation. ... I'm probably one of the proudest and happiest coach ever right now. Because I'm so happy for so many other people."

They will all revel in that happiness tonight. Then they will refocus for a semifinal against the European champion, England. And they will believe that they can take another resounding step, in front of another sold-out crowd on Wednesday night.

"I genuinely, really believe that this team can create history — in so many ways, not just winning football games, but the way that they can inspire the next generation, how they can unite a nation, how they can leave a legacy," Gustavsson said. "And I think that 'why' is also why I believe in them so much. Because the 'why' is so much bigger than just football. And when that drives you ... that is a powerful tool that's very difficult to stop."