My first memory of football is my under-7s self practising cartwheels in goal, while my coach yelled at me to keep both feet on the floor and two eyes on the ball. I thought he was being a bit dramatic — the ball was at the other end of the field, and it was boring watching the boys play while I did nothing.* Suffice to say I was never put in goal again, and my formal football career ended after one season. Football left my life, and other sports entered.
I hadn’t thought much about the game since — that is until four weeks ago, when the Matildas had their first game of the FIFA World Cup. I watched it at home, on the couch, more out of procrastination than any genuine interest. Within five minutes my heart rate had increased and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. Catley’s goal sent me for a run around my lounge room, and I spent the rest of the night obsessively watching old interviews of the Matildas.
By the time they played Canada, I had purchased one of the last jerseys on the rack at Rebel Broadway, knew each of the twenty three players on the team, and had ventured so far back on YouTube I was watching Sam Kerr’s goals from when she was twelve.
My new found love of Matildas, as it turns out, aligned with the rest of Australia. This season’s jersey has outsold past editions 13 to one, and 7.2 million people tuned into the last game against France — the largest audience for a sporting event in at least a decade. At the game against Canada, my friends and I arrived fifteen minutes before kick off and couldn’t find a seat at the pub. At last week’s game, against France, we arrived an hour before kick off at Tumbalong Park, and were informed that they were nearing capacity and recommended we go to the roof of the ICC to watch the game there. The Inner West Council has wrapped bins with support for the Matildas, and the trendiest cafe I go to (a kind of wankery one, big on minimalist design) had a Matildas scarf draped on a shelf, held up by bags of coffee beans. Politicians, journalists, CEOs, the Department of Education — everyone seems to have gotten behind the Matildas.
While this may seem like a meteoric rise to those on the outside, the truth is anything but. Women’s football in the nation has historically been underfunded — in 1999 the Matildas posed naked to raise money to prepare for the Olympics. Many talented players have had to leave the sport throughout the years, unable to live off the wages that were paid to women footballers. It was only in 2019 that the pay gap between the Matildas and the Socceroos closed. The Matildas are still fighting for equal pay (if they win the World Cup, they walk away with a quarter of what the men do — something they are actively campaigning to change). These pay concerns are coupled by significant injuries from key players in the lead up to the cup — Carpenter’s ACL tear and Raso’s broken back spring to mind. Australia may rally behind them now, but it’s important to remember what our widespread lack of support has meant historically.
The sense of community that has emerged throughout this World Cup is unmatched in my memory. At the game against France, my mates exchanged information about how extra time and penalties work to the people beside us, while they shared their rug and gum with us. I have gotten nods and WOOOOs yelled at me while I wear green and gold, and have done the same to others donning the Tillies colours. I know I’ll be giving football another shot next year, and I don’t think I’m the only woman who will be doing this.
The Matildas as a team have my heart (and my tears). I have found endless joy in realising how many queer and lesbian women are on the national team — never have I felt more represented than by the Matildas. Sam Kerr earlier this year said “everyone should feel comfortable in whatever skin they’re in, whoever they want to be, whoever they want to love.” This post, representative of the culture of the Matildas, was the first of many that made me cry.
I found myself crying after watching a video of Katrina Gorry’s child running around, thinking about what this means for women returning to sport after childbirth. I cried at the Facebook post of a mum saying Cortnee Vine came back out with her jersey to give her daughter. I cried after Mary Fowler’s Instagram post showing people in Kira Kira, a village in PNG that Fowler’s mother is from, crowded around a television, watching the game against France. Supporting this team, alongside everyone else, has made me understand the joy of watching sport, and what being involved in a team looks like.
The Matildas are up against England tonight. Every atom in my body wants them to win. But win or loss, the Australia that has emerged during the 2023 FIFA World Cup is unrecognisable to the one before — and that is a victory worth celebrating.
*I acknowledge that goalies above the pay-grade of a six year old do so much more. Mackenzie Arnold I love you.