The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter based in Melbourne.
They won’t be facing off against Spain on Sunday, and they couldn’t quite beat back England in this week’s semifinals. But if the Matildas, Australia’s national women’s soccer team, didn’t win the tournament overall, they have nonetheless walked away with the nation’s hearts clasped firmly in their hands.
In late June, reporting this story about the history of women’s sports in Australia, I spoke with Marion Stell, a historian at the University of Queensland, about what at that time seemed like muted enthusiasm for the tournament, then around a month away.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to build on it as a huge legacy,” she said.
Those hopes seem already to have been fulfilled.
Defying expectations, Wednesday’s match smashed records as Australia’s most watched television program of any genre — sport or otherwise — since records began in 2001, with around 7.13 million people tuning in.
In a statement, Lewis Martin, head of sport for Seven, the broadcaster, said that the team’s performance had “captured the Australian spirit like nothing we have seen in decades.”
He added: “The Matildas played their hearts out and did us all proud. The Matildas have rewritten the history books.”
And though the public holiday some hoped would emerge from an Australian World Cup victory may now be off the table, the team is still being celebrated in memes, group chats, opinion columns and a variety of other media (including a Matildas-themed green and gold knish, at the kosher bakery Zelda in Ripponlea, Victoria.)
After reporting in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, my colleague Rory Smith, The Times’s chief soccer columnist, described in this story how “the whole country seems to be decked out in green and gold. Images of Matildas players beam out from billboards and television screens and the front pages of every newspaper.”
Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper was even briefly rebranded as The Kerr-ier Mail, in honor of Sam Kerr, Australia’s captain and superstar player, he wrote.
For longstanding fans of women’s soccer in Australia, the tournament seems to mark a new beginning for the sport.
Writing in The Guardian, Joey Peters, a former player for the Matildas, described the pride and hope she now felt.
“It has given us such excitement for the future,” she wrote. “Now we can dare to dream, whereas before I could never have imagined this. The next generation is grabbing hold of that dream. This is our future now. Australians as a football-loving nation. Little girls falling in love with the game and becoming strong, inspiring women.”
But amid the optimism, some concerns remain. After the team’s loss on Wednesday, Ms. Kerr, the Matildas’ star, called for more federal funding for women’s soccer.
“We need funding in our development, we need funding in our grass roots. We need funding, you know, we need funding everywhere,” she said. “Comparison to other sports isn’t really good enough, and hopefully this tournament kind of changes that — because that’s the legacy you leave, not what you do on the pitch.”
The Australian government has made few hard promises, however. In an unattributed statement, a spokesperson for the federal government said: “We want funding to be fit for purpose, so more women and girls can participate and compete in sport at all levels — and we will always look for more ways to do that.”
And another thing: The old sporting chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi, oi, oi),” heard throughout this tournament, inspires enthusiasm in some and embarrassment in others. Its supporters, perhaps surprisingly, have included Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist writer, who called it a powerful and patriotic rallying call.
“The cry is catchy, any crowd can pick it up and it cuts through the surrounding white noise like a military tattoo,” she wrote in this vociferous defense about a decade ago. “It is as jingoistic to reject it because it was originally British as it would be to prize it for the same reason.”
Here are the week’s stories.