Why the Women's World Cup was Australia's greatest sporting spectacle
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The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was Australia’s greatest sporting spectacle, and here’s why.
Not since the 2000 Olympics had a tournament of this magnitude graced the shores of Australia, and with co-hosts New Zealand also on hand, the two nations were ready to come out in force for football.
It was an event that went beyond football, beyond sport in this country.
As the games flew by and the weeks progressed it soon became clear to everyone that this was something incredibly special.
I don’t believe there’s ever been an event in history that has united Australia quite like the Women’s World Cup has.
Even ahead of the tournament, there was a sense of anticipation and excitement that hadn’t been seen in this nation since the Olympics.
But as the competition progressed and belief began to grow that the Matildas could actually go all the way, there seriously felt like there was something special in the air.
There were doubts after the loss to Nigeria, but Australia silenced any of those doubters with a 4-0 victory over Canada in the final group stage - and then we were truly off to the races.
Matildas became the talk of the sporting crowd ahead of the Round of 16 game against Denmark.
A convincing 2-0 victory meant that the Matildas had gone further than the Socceroos at the Men’s World Cup just six months earlier.
And now the Matildas not only became the talk of sports lovers but everyone in the country.
Up came France, and while the Melbourne Cup calls itself ‘the race that stops the nation’, this game truly stopped a nation.
You had cricket grounds full of AFL fans leaving their seats to catch the penalty shootout in the concourse.
You had fan zones all across the country filled with Australians biting their nails and feeling the pressure as one.
AFL and NRL teams were huddled around mobile phones watching anxiously. Passengers on aeroplanes were watching the game high above the country.
You had people who had never watched a game of football before experience the magic of this moment for the first time.
There had never been a moment that had cut through so many demographics quite like this. And then when Courtnee Vine slotted home - pure ecstasy.
Everywhere you looked there was a Matildas’ scarf or jersey, and billboards of players who had now become national heroes.
Up next was England and if there’s anything that can bring Australians together it's a rivalry with the British.
Fever-pitch in this country had hit an all-time high, everyone you talked to was talking about the biggest football game in this country - everyone now felt like they were a part of something historic.
While that game ended in disappointment, there was no doubt that the Matildas and Australians had achieved something that went way beyond football - we were a country united.
For a supposed non-football nation, Australia seriously came out for their Matildas.
It smashed television and attendance records
Before a ball had even been kicked at this World Cup history had already been made.
New Zealand’s opening game against Norway surpassed the attendance of any women’s sporting event in that country with 42,137.
And then Australia came out in force for the Tillies against Ireland with 75,784 strong packing out Stadium Australia - easily breaking the Matildas’ attendance record.
It was a game that had to be moved from the Sydney Football Stadium to Olympic Park purely because of the demand.
It was just a sign of things to come.
Across Australia and New Zealand, fans were packing out stadiums to watch the Women’s World Cup.
Even games that had neither host nation competing saw tremendous crowds coming out in the freezing cold, late on a weeknight.
Such was the appetite for women’s football, that before the Round of 16 had even wrapped up the competition had broken the Women’s World Cup attendance record of 1,367,037 set in Canada in the 2015 edition.
Total fan attendance across the two countries hit 1.97 million following the conclusion of Spain against England.
And that’s not to mention the television audience that was tuning in throughout the tournament.
It felt like we were breaking a record every Matildas’ game as millions tuned in on Channel 7 to catch their heroes.
Their Saturday 5 pm slot against France saw something completely unprecedented in Australian television.
Before the tournament there had been questions over whether the network would place any of the games ahead of the AFL in their schedule, Channel 7 went a step further.
The Matildas' game went on ahead of the NEWS. With the news being a cornerstone of every free-to-air network, it was special to see a women’s sporting team prioritised.
And of course, that record-breaking England semi-final.
The game broke records that were thought unattainable by any television show, let alone a game of football.
The game in Sydney reached a whopping 11.15 million Australians nationally, making it the most-watched television program (sport or otherwise) in Australia since the current ratings system began in 2001.
Nine out of 10 Australians watching commercial television that night were tuned into the Matildas.
An absolutely historic result.
We saw superstars born
Across the tournament, once relatively unknown players became household names.
And we’re not just talking about the Matildas.
Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa became a goalscoring sensation for the Asian nation at just 23 years of age.
Linda Caceido’s inspirational story of undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer signing for Real Madrid and representing Colombia at the World Cup captured the hearts of many.
And my word is she is a baller. At just 18 years old there’s no doubt she’s a superstar.
Lauren James made headlines for the right and wrong reasons, showcasing herself as one of the best footballers in the world to then getting sent off for a moment of madness.
But there was no doubt she truly arrived on the world stage with her performances.
And let’s not forget the Spanish. Alexia Putellas was a well-known name as the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, but names such Aitana Bonmati, Salma Paralluelo, and Jennifer Hermoso all stook their claim to win the Player of the Tournament.
Sweden became giant killers, knocking out the United States and Japan. And who would have predicted defender Amanda Ilestedt putting in a Golden Boot claim?
Of course, you can’t talk about superstars without talking about the Tillies.
Everyone went into the tournament knowing who Sam Kerr was, but when she went out with an injury before the opening game, it was a chance for others to step up.
And did they ever.
Coming out of this tournament names such as Mary Fowler, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, Mackenzie Arnold, Katrina Gorry, and Alanna Kennedy have become household names.
That’s not even an exaggeration, there are so many more players who could be named.
These are all names that young girls and boys will look up to and call their inspiration for years to come.
The impact of this tournament and the interest in women’s football that the Matildas have fought for will be felt for years to come.
These women’s footballers across 32 nations and beyond have proven that the appetite for women’s sports is only growing.
And already we are seeing leaders in Australia making commitments to the future of women’s sport in this country.
While we were in the midst of calls for public holidays should the Matildas win the whole thing, the South Australian government had other ideas.
Instead of spending the $18 million that it would cost, Premier Peter Malinasukas committed to delivering a grant program dedicated to female sporting facilities and participation in the state.
Other states would soon follow, with the Federal Government itself announcing a $200 million boost for women’s sports along with reforms to ensure events are accessible on free-to-air television.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said of the boost: “The Matildas have given us a moment of national inspiration, this is about seizing that opportunity for the next generation, investing in community sporting facilities for women and girls around Australia.
“Sport is a great unifier and a great teacher - it brings communities together, it teaches us about teamwork and resilience and the joy of shared success.
“We want women and girls everywhere in Australia to have the facilities and the support to choose a sport they love.”
Beyond financial boosts and funding, the Matildas have inspired a whole new generation of Australians, male and female, who could one day dream of becoming footballers.
They’ve shown that the goal of representing your country on the world stage is attainable.
The current Matildas crop has worked tirelessly for years for women’s football to be recognised, and it’s only going to now get bigger from here thanks to them.
Their legacy goes beyond this tournament - it’s the doors they’ve opened for the future.