The Matildas Turned My Hair White And They Haven’t Even Faced England Yet
4:13 PM EDT on August 15, 2023
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Defector hasn’t written about the World Cup quarterfinal matchup between Australia and France yet, despite it having happened three entire days ago. This is a blogging crime, you might think: What good are bloggers if they can't even write fast!
Well, I am here to say that bloggers are human too. We're (I'm) not immune to the trauma of watching an incredibly stressful pre-dawn 20-kick penalty shootout. This shootout, which punctuated the already zippy match between Les Bleues and the Matildas, featured the most intense swings between "We’re so back" and "It’s so over" I have ever experienced. I'm still a wreck.
For Aussies, and those of us who have adopted the Root, root, root for the host team ethos, the shootout started off on a fine note, with Matildas keeper Mackenzie Arnold saving Selma Bacha’s shot. The next two shooters buried their kicks, one for each side, making the score 1-1, with Australia in the stronger position by virtue of having more remaining attempts. But Solène Durand, the French keeper who came on in stoppage time of extra time purely for the shootout, did her job and saved Steph Catley’s attempt, bringing the sides fully level.
The next two shooters were the captains, Wendie Renard and Sam Kerr, and they both finished their chances, Renard easily and Kerr with some dramatics: Her shot was dangerously close to Durand’s lunging reach, and therefore dangerously close to killing me, but made it 2-2 nonetheless. For the seventh and eighth penalties on the night, French veteran Eugénie Le Sommer and Australian youngster Mary Fowler both made their shots as well, to make it 3-3, and again the Australian proved to be the more exciting of the two. Fowler thumped her shot with an unbending force that had the air of a knuckleball, a fitting cap on her outstanding performance during the game itself.
Two shots remained of the allotted ten between the teams, and Arnold looked to have won the day when she saved Eve Perisset’s attempt, deflecting it off the post. If the next Matilda made it, they’d win the whole thing and move on to the final! Well, turns out the next Matilda to shoot was Arnold herself, and she sent the ball on a laser to the post where it bounced far from the mouth of the goal. Well, dammit. Not everyone can be as cool as Alyssa Naeher, I guess.
Usually when a shootout continues past that initial five-shots-a-team guarantee into sudden death, only a few more are necessary. No one could have expected a whopping 10 more chances.
The next six penalty takers put theirs away, a terrifying series of escalations for the Matildas and their fans: This being sudden death, every time France made a shot, the following Australian kicker stepped in with her team's entire World Cup destiny on her back. So no, even though several shots in a row did go on, my heart rate did not calm down.
This brought us to France's Kenza Dali, whose attempt, the 17th of the night, Arnold saved with a heroic full-extension dive. Just kidding! VAR decided to be a party pooper, declaring that Arnold had left her line before Dali’s foot contacted the ball. Dali seemed to agree—with me, anyway—that Arnold’s save was worthy of sticking: She put the redo shot in the same place, only weaker, and Arnold promptly made the save again. After a few terrible seconds of limbo, during which I and probably everyone on the field thought VAR would ruin the party again, what everybody saw was allowed to have happened. Phew. The next Matilda, Clare Hunt, had a chance to win it all!
Unfortunately Durand’s left hand had other ideas. She dove too far to her right, but stuck her glove back the other way just in time to block Hunt’s shot. The save defied the laws of gravity and also ensured that Matildas fans' collective torture would continue.
Blessedly, French player Vicki Becho then smacked her shot—the 19th of the match!—off the post. The Matildas had another opening, but there was, er, not a whole lot of precedent for them capitalizing on those openings. Substitute Courtnee Vine stepped up to the plate, said fuck precedence, buried her shot, and sent her team to the semis. All of my hair had turned white by then and I had bit my nails down as far as they go, but no matter. There I was, at six o’clock in the morning, pumping my fists and silently screaming for fear of waking my roommates up. I may not have dislocated my shoulder from excitement, but I was pretty damn happy—happy for the Matildas, and happy to be done with the specific hell of sitting through the longest shootout in World Cup history.
This nifty video from Fox of each penalty attempt in quick succession is beautiful, but it belies the genuine torment of the shootout, erasing those endless moments of dread between kicks. However, I am pleased to report that the reactions to the Matildas’ win from Australia have been almost enough to heal me. Videos of celebrations from across the country, from planes to city squares, convey a euphoria that only a razor's-edge victory can evoke. The craze has continued beyond that momentous night; street signs have been edited to show proper praise to players, newspapers have their priorities right, and the team’s Instagram following has exploded.
This historic moment for Australian women’s football is undeniably fantastic; you could imagine the players already feeling they've conquered the world, and losing their focus. But they haven’t won the World Cup yet! Thankfully, after a night of celebration, coach Tony Gustavsson seems to be keeping his players’ heads in the game. In a presser, he said the Matildas are thrilled with the win but are looking forward to their match against England more than looking back. Arnold, who came away from the quarterfinal match a national hero, seems to be in a healthy headspace. “The last couple of days have been a pretty big whirlwind for me, probably the first time I’ve received attention like that,” she admitted. “But at the same time I just tend to block it out because I know, to be honest, if I play like shit tomorrow it could be a whole different attention on me.”
Australian press has begun to look ahead to the England game as well, maybe even a little too much. The Daily Telegraph sent a helicopter to spy on a closed Lioness training session and published some of the photos. Drama! This game is already lining up to be far more exciting than this morning’s semifinal between Spain and Sweden, which only got interesting in the last ten minutes. The stakes certainly are higher, with the tournament's hosts involved.
And unlike that matchup, which saw a bumbling bumblebee and a nepo-baby villain coaching the sides, the upcoming match will see two worthy managers facing off: Sarina Wiegman for England and Tony Gustavsson for Australia. Notably, Weigman is the only female coach whose team made it to the semi-finals, and her presence in the final would certainly be a silver lining should the Lionesses win.
But, to be clear, I’m rooting for the Tillies all the way! (So is Jess McDonald, by the way. If that’s not a sign that you should hop on the gold and green train too, I don’t know what is). My second priority after an Australia victory? No extra time, and definitely no shootout.