The Matildas couldn’t believe how the ground at Stadium Australia shook with the entrance of Sam Kerr.
The players had heard a roar from the crowd just as ferocious as those when Australia scored their two goals against Denmark earlier in the game and looked up to see what the hell was going on. Then they realised it was Kerr standing next to the fourth official, waiting to replace Hayley Raso and finally play her first World Cup minutes.
Emily van Egmond, who was also coming off to make way for Cortnee Vine, heard and felt the whole joint lift. “I was getting subbed out so I saw Sammy on the sideline, and I was just so happy for her,” van Egmond said after training in Brisbane on Thursday. “She gets to step on the field here in a home World Cup. It’s just awesome for her.”
This sounds like backtracking, reliving a moment in the past when the Matildas are already focused firmly on the future for Saturday’s quarter-final against France. But those few precious seconds, when Australia’s centre of gravity that was already inside a 75,000-capacity cauldron then zoomed in on the inhabiter of a small patch of grass in front of Australia’s dugout, typified what has happened since.
That is, that the AFL wants to show Australia’s quarter-final on the big screens at the MCG before Saturday night’s high-profile Carlton-Melbourne tie. That the AFL is moving said tie back by five minutes to cater for the match that will stop a nation.
That the SCG is allowing members and guests to stay after the afternoon’s Swans v Suns clash to watch it and Stadium Australia is letting England v Colombia ticket holders enter early for the same reason. That Channel Seven is pushing back its evening news bulletin because something else is bigger than the news.
The Matildas, through sheer popularity, have forced the country’s sporting establishment to adapt their scheduling, to mould around them. There is a manic quality to the hype now, one that has been brewing for three years since Australia and New Zealand were announced as hosts, but to which many did not pay much attention until their attention was demanded.
“It’s amazing to be a part of it,” said defender Clare Hunt. “I kind of expected this to happen, hosting a World Cup. But it’s absolutely amazing that it is occurring in this country. And I think the more that we can expose ourselves to the Australian public as a team, female athletes showing our capacities on the field.”
The mania descended on cricket star (and former Matilda) Ellyse Perry, too. Appearing in Melbourne to announce a two year contract extension with the Sydney Sixers in the Women’s Big Bash League, Perry drew a crowd partly because she is the most recent Matilda to score in a World Cup quarter-final. Her 2011 strike against Sweden is the stuff of world cup folklore.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really seen anything like this,” said Perry, who was injured but part of the squad when Australia won the T20 World Cup against India in front of 86,000 at the MCG.
Now, she considers herself a Matildas fan. “And not just the Matildas, but every other team involved in the competition. The level that they’re playing at, the style that they’re playing, the amazing entertainment that they’re giving all of us, it’s just been amazing to watch.”
The mania is, of course, at least partly focused on Kerr, whose face has been the focal point of organisers’ marketing for the World Cup. But her absence has made space for others to become household names and take a deserved place in the limelight. The days of group-think Matildas support are in the past.
A journalist asked van Egmond on Thursday if the players had grown frustrated at the relentless questioning about their captain and talismanic striker. “I’d have to ask you guys - you’re the ones asking the questions,” she bit back with a smile, before offering a much longer and hugely complimentary answer about her teammate and childhood friend.
The framing of questions around Kerr continued. Will Kerr be fit to start? Would van Egmond, who has been a picture of class and composure in attack this tournament, especially alongside the brilliant Mary Fowler, be disappointed to be dropped to the bench to make way for Kerr? Will coach Tony Gustavsson be having sleepless nights about disrupting a perfectly balanced XI now Kerr can play?
“I actually think he’s probably sleeping better,” van Egmond said. “It’s not a nightmare at all. It’s a dream come true, honestly. We’re buzzing for her, we’re buzzing for the team, and the most important thing is the game on Saturday - that’s all we’re looking forward to.”
In other words everything, as it stands, is being funnelled towards momentum for a team that has achieved so much without winning a World Cup. And, with many of the core group including van Egmond, now aged 30 or over, a peaking feeling that the time is now before some older squad members begin to transition into retirement.
“A lot of the girls have been in this team for 10-15 years, and I think they’ve come to the realisation now that this is the time,” said Hunt, who is on the younger side at 24. “It’s amazing to be a part of this group when everyone has a collective belief that this is the time. And knowing that we have the capacity to win this tournament is absolutely amazing. That’s what’s driving us through our games.”
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