Sydney, Australia – Even before a ball was kicked in Australia and New Zealand, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was making history.
It was the first to be co-hosted by nations from different confederations. It sold more tickets than ever before and was expanded from 24 to 32 teams with bigger prize money given directly to players.
Yet as excitement builds ahead of Australia’s semifinal against rivals England on Wednesday, some say it’s the way this tournament has made people feel about football – and the women’s game in particular – that has turned it into a “watershed”.
When Cortnee Vine’s winning penalty hit the back of the net for Australia in the thrilling quarterfinal shootout against France in Brisbane, it was as if the whole of Australia roared as one.
Outside Stadium Australia in Sydney ahead of the England vs Colombia quarterfinal, it was bedlam. Men and women, boys and girls discarded decorum in favour of tangled, unrestrained leaps of joy. It was the biggest “remember where you were” moment in Australian sport since Cathy Freeman’s 400-metres gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The win over France reached more than 7 million people, more than a quarter of the population, on Australia’s Channel 7, making it the highest rated sports programme in a decade. The online broadcast was Australia’s most streamed show of all time.
James Johnson, CEO of the governing body Football Australia, has been delighted by the record crowds and television viewing figures, but he has been happiest with how the country has taken the Australian national team, nicknamed “the Matildas”, to heart.
“You’ve got a brand and a team that goes beyond metrics. You’ve got a team that’s really bringing Australian [communities] together, and through the Matildas, the common theme I’m getting is that people feel better connected to Australia,” he said.
“And, for me, that goes over and beyond what all these great metrics are.”
Johnson is in no doubt how historic this tournament has been for Australia and the wider game.
“It is a watershed moment. Just to put it into perspective, we’ve sold more Matildas’ jerseys during this Women’s World Cup than Socceroos jerseys – which is our men’s team – during the Qatar World Cup. We’ve actually doubled [the sales],” he said.
“This team are role models for our young girls and our young boys. You’ll see people wearing [star striker] Sam Kerr jerseys, and it’s not just the girls. It’s the boys as well. And that’s something that’s very different and unique.”
If Lorna Dunkley had been listening to the conversation, she would have been nodding in agreement. The British TV newsreader, who now works for the ABC news channel, emigrated to Sydney with her Australian husband and two sports-mad sons seven years ago.
Despite a world-weary cynicism that experienced journalists tend to develop, she too has been swept along by the wave of excitement washing over Australia.
“Going to work, seeing everybody in green and gold, it’s a complete frenzy of a nation being gripped by a group of truly admirable women who have conducted everything they do with such professionalism and emotion,” Dunkley told Al Jazeera as she headed off to a surfing lesson in Sydney.
“Friends of mine, both Australian and English, who never talk about football – their kids don’t play – all of a sudden, they want to know where the local pub is that’s showing [the game]. One of my girlfriends is going to the semifinal between Australia and England, which she would never have considered doing.”
Margy Osmond has a tale of Matildas obsession too. She is the CEO of Australia’s Tourism and Transport forum and, after speaking to Al Jazeera in central Sydney, was heading off to catch a flight to Melbourne for a function on the same night that Australia face England.
“I’ve just received a notification they’re bringing the whole dinner forward and the televisions will be on so we can all watch the Matildas. The country has gone Matildas mad,” Osmond said. “People who perhaps haven’t had an interest in sport and certainly not in football are now talking about it and appreciating just how good the games have been. It’s been terrific entertainment.”
Earlier in her career, Osmond was a board member at the Australian Sports Commission, so she is not as surprised as many by this unprecedented level of interest.
“This is a massive change of attitude, but I don’t think it has happened overnight,” she said.
“This has been a product of a great deal of hard work from people like the Australian Sports Commission and also from those TV stations who were prepared to cover women’s sport and give it the profile it deserved, and we’re reaping the benefits of that now.”
With her unique experience from working in the British and Australian media and even starting out as a sports reporter before going on to cover global news events, Dunkley came to a similar conclusion.
“It’s been a long time coming. Twenty years ago, none of us would have been sent from a newsroom to a women’s rugby match, football match, cricket match. And it really has been led by Australia,” she said. “Australian sports coverage is very good. The women’s Ashes was really big here.”
For those who don’t know, the Ashes is the name given to the cricket series between England and Australia, and it dates back to the 1800s. Fittingly, the Women’s World Cup semifinal between the two countries will be their fourth major sporting head-to-head this year after the Netball World Cup final this month and two Ashes series in England.
On each occasion, Australia came away with the trophy.
Dunkley admitted she will feel a little torn during Wednesday’s semifinal.
“I will be supporting the Lionesses. My family will be supporting the Matildas. But actually my heart says that I would really like the Matildas to go through,” she said.
“It’s a better story for the nation and for what the Matildas have built on home soil. To see them play in a final would do amazing things in this country and hopefully do amazing things for women’s sport around the world.”
Johnson doesn’t shy away from the rivalry although, interestingly, he also has English ties.
“We compete in cricket. We compete in rugby union. We compete in football. We’ve competed for about 150 years. There’s a lot of banter, but it’s very healthy banter, and it’s very competitive both on and off the pitch,” he said. “I was born in England, but I run the game here in Australia, so for me and my family, it couldn’t be any better than this.”
“Whoever wins, it sets up a fantastic final.”
Johnson can afford to be generous because, in his opinion, Australia has already won.
“Even before the Matildas walk out against the Lionesses, we know that participation is up across the country. We know that there’s more money than ever before flowing into the sport from governments and from commercial partners,” he said.
“And it’s really the first time that Australian football has been front and centre of the mainstream agenda for the whole month, … and we’re creating memories that today’s children will remember in decades to come.”