miércoles, mayo 22

Australia Loved the Matildas. Will It Continue to Love Women’s Sports?

The morning after Australia’s dream run at the Women’s World Cup ended one win short of the final, Denisse Lopez, 34, found a quiet spot to sit in Darling Harbour. She was still wearing the Sam Kerr jersey she had put on for Australia’s semifinal loss to England the night before. She carried a book and a croissant, a type of pastry she had denied herself, because of its origins, until her team had beaten France in the quarterfinals.

Betrayed by her puffy eyes, Lopez admitted she had been crying. She had attended all of Australia’s matches in this World Cup, starting with their first group stage contest four weeks earlier, using airline miles to follow the Matildas up and down the country’s east coast. So strong was her belief in the team that she had secured tickets to the final but not the third-place match in Brisbane, where Australia will play Sweden on Saturday.

“It just came out this morning,” Lopez, who lives in Melbourne, said of her tears. “The players started posting about the loss, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sad.’ Mostly, I feel flat and disappointed for the girls. But, you know, there’s one more game.”

Hosting the tournament along with New Zealand, Australia was a cauldron of complex emotions after the hometown team fell shy of the outcome that many Australians did not know they wanted so badly until it came so close to happening. Disappointment was mixed with pride, but there was also some uncertainty about whether there would be the fan and institutional support needed to sustain Matildas fever beyond this quadrennial tournament being held on their home soil.

This is a sports-mad country, but not necessarily a soccer-mad one. The Daily Telegraph, a local tabloid, cited a survey taken before the World Cup that said most Australians could not recognize any Matildas players besides Kerr, the team captain and star striker. Surely that is no longer the case, as breakout players like goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold and forward Mary Fowler have become instantly recognizable through countless on-field close-ups. Thursday morning in Darling Harbour, fans approached Cortnee Vine, the substitute who scored the winning penalty kick in the quarterfinal, for a selfie as she appeared to be out for a walk with family members.

But Kerr’s plea, in the aftermath of a defeat that left her in tears, that her sport receive the kind of funding that is devoted to the Australian Football League or the National Rugby League was a reminder that there is no guarantee that this moment has permanence. Australia Coach Tony Gustavsson had referred to this as a “crossroads moment” for the country’s investment in women’s soccer to match that of some of its top opponents, such as England.

Perhaps similarly recognizing the fragility of the bond between Australians and their Matildas, midfielder Katrina Gorry urged supporters not to jump off the bandwagon. And just 14 hours after more than 75,000 fans packed Stadium Australia in Sydney for the semifinal against England, the Matildas asked fans on social media not to forget that they still had one more match.

Rana Hussain, a Melbourne-based inclusion and belonging specialist in sports, said the tension around what happens next contributed to her heartbreak as she lingered in the stadium after the final whistle on Wednesday night, not wanting the magic to be over.

“It’s the fear that we go back to the old normal, especially after having a taste of what life feels like when we do fund and invest in women’s sport and what it does look like when the crowds turn up and to see that it’s possible,” she said in a phone interview. “We all kind of are holding our breath waiting to see, do we go back to business as usual? Or is this really the line in the sand that we’re all saying it is and hoping it is?”

Hussain wrote on social networks that Australia would never look back after this run, which she admitted was as much to reassure herself as anything. She also encouraged fans to continue supporting Matildas players as they disperse to their club teams, sometimes in other countries, a common obstacle to sustained support after major international tournaments.

The morning papers on Thursday predicted staying power. The lead headline of The Australian declared, “Dream Kerr-tailed but national love affair’s just begun.” The front page of The Telegraph asserted that despite the loss, “our girls in green and gold have changed the nation’s sporting landscape forever.”

The semifinal broadcast reached 11.15 million Australians, more than 40 percent of the population, according to ratings figures released by OzTAM, Australia’s audience measurement source. The national average audience of more than seven million, which does not include viewers at pubs or other venues, made the game the most-watched television program since the measurement system began in 2001.

Because women’s sports were born of exclusion, said Kasey Symons, a research fellow with the Sport Innovation Research Group at Swinburne University in Melbourne, they often generate a more welcoming and inclusive fan culture. She saw that happen during this World Cup, and said the passion of new fans contributed to the emotional hangover that she too was working through on Thursday morning.

“I think a lot of people are trying to navigate some feelings they don’t really know too well,” Symons said in a phone interview. “There’s just this really overwhelming sense of validation that women in sport has value, and people have connected with that. So that’s a really emotional experience to see that and feel part of it, and that sense of belonging I think is a really important part of this.”

In Darling Harbour, the FIFA fan festival was closed on Thursday, but Clare Roden, 46, a teacher who lives a two-hour drive down the coast, was asking a security guard for information about getting in on Saturday to watch the Matildas. She bought a ticket to the final last October, not thinking her team would be in it — but over the last week she started to believe it would happen. She still plans to go to the final between England and Spain, painful as it may be, but first needed to lock down her viewing plans for the third-place match.

Lopez was hoping to make the trip up to Brisbane. After all, she had been at every other Matildas match this tournament.

She is a newer fan who began watching soccer during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when pandemic-related restrictions in Melbourne kept her home. Australia’s win over Britain in the Olympic quarterfinals got her hooked, and as an immigrant from the Philippines, she felt connected to a game that is international. She began attending the Matildas’ friendly matches, some with crowds a fraction of what she saw during this tournament, and bought the FIFA 23 video game because Kerr was on the cover.

Even after the agonizing defeat, Lopez found solace in rewatching the moment that had given the home crowd a final surge of hope: Kerr crossing the midfield line with the ball, gaining steam as she drove forward and then delivering a strike from over 25 yards out. Lopez posted a clip of that goal to Instagram with a caption to which most of Australia could relate: “Mentally we’re still here.”