So here we are again. It’s Australia versus England in a major sporting contest – as if the Ashes, netball, rugby and not forgetting darts weren’t enough.
But something feels different with this fixture. The match in question is, of course, the semi-final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past three weeks, you will have noticed that cup fever has gripped the land. Even long-haul international flights could provide no respite for refuseniks.
We all enjoy seeing the skill of athletes. However, it is the emotional investment in the team that truly draws us in. The close-ups of emoting players and the soundscapes of the ball hitting the post create shared moments of emotion that only live sport can provide in an age of streaming and video on demand.
Other host nations are no stranger to this phenomenon, which alters perceptions of nationhood: France 1998, South Korea 2002; Germany 2006. But it’s nice when it happens to us.
And it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people at the centre of it all: the Matildas. Projecting onto sportspeople can be a risky business. The real people behind the public personas can sometimes disappoint.
Nonetheless, this team seems a genuinely likeable and supportive group of players. Some Australian teams – we don’t need to name names – have attracted criticism and opprobrium at home and abroad for not playing entirely by the rules (aka “cheating”), or playing in a less than gracious manner.
But the Matildas seem refreshingly different. And the “old” rivalry with England seems different too. This begs the question, why?
First, history. In contrast to other codes, there is no long history of Anglo-Australian rivalry in football, for either the women’s or men’s teams. The histories of how sporting codes spread around the world depends a lot on those promoting the games: were they private school-educated missionaries across the former British Empire, for example, or British railway navvies in Latin America.
Football in Australia experienced periods of large crowds during the 1920s and 1950s – linked to migration from the United Kingdom – but it was always kept on the sidelines by other codes.
Second, hierarchy. In what some Australians call “the world game” (itself a claim by its supporters to remind fans of other codes of their parochialism), the hierarchies are different. Women’s football has been dominated by the United States for so long that it has become the team to beat. Australia competes in the Asian confederation, so Japan is the main rival in these competitions. And there’s always New Zealand, where “traditional rivalries” – and hierarchies – seem most at stake. Football has developed as a truly international game, in contrast with cricket, netball and rugby which developed largely in the confines of Commonwealth and Empire.
Third, gender. This is, of course, the women’s world cup. By all accounts, the atmosphere at games is different from those of the men’s leagues and internationals. Although perpetrated by a minority, we know fans’ behaviour at men’s games can sometimes set the cause of football in Australia back 20 years. As yet, we have not seen female fans with eight pints of beer under their belts and three sheets to the wind invading the pitch.
Of course, the fixture is a nightmare scenario for English immigrants. And there are lots of English people living in Australia. In 2021-22, the UK (not the same as England) was the donor country of the third-largest group of migrants into Australia. More than a million people born in the UK now live permanently in Australia, making up 5% of the total population.
If this fixture is difficult for the migrants, imagine the dilemma it poses if you happen to be head of state of both countries. Presumably King Charles will adopt a constitutional position (we could say an each-way bet) on the outcome.
However, William, Prince of Wales, is head of the (English) Football Association, a point not lost on football fans in Scotland, Northern Ireland and not least Wales, as well as the Australian Republican Movement.
Then there is the prospect of a potential penalty shootout. Those of us who have been following international football for longer than we care to admit have experienced what is euphemistically called “the drama” of shootouts before. Many of us have aged prematurely as a result. (Despite the photo accompanying this article, I’m actually only 28.)
Little can outdo this horrific spectacle. Every time FIFA pushes its quest for markets into new areas – be it “lost continents” such as North America or Australia, or the women’s game – unsolicited advice from new spectators schooled in other sports is given on how to “improve” the game to make it more “exciting”. Make the goals bigger (or just make the goalkeepers smaller) is perhaps the classic of the genre. But whatever needless innovation novices might feel is necessary, nothing can match a penalty shootout for stomach-wrenching tension and drama.
The semi-final is an Australia-England fixture with fewer of the national slights and burdens of history, hierarchy and gender than other sports.
However, with the stakes so high, this will be part of the emerging history between the two teams, many of whose players are teammates at English and or continental European clubs. A repeat result of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, when the England men’s team beat Australia in the final minute, would be a national calamity for Australia. But whatever the result of the semi-final, it feels like the ground has shifted for football – women’s especially – in Australia.
A word of caution: penalty shootouts feel great when your team wins. If your team is the one denied by the woodwork, however, it’s not so fun. If that happens tonight, Australian football will have something to blame England for.