I woke up on Saturday morning with my voice still hoarse from screaming at the TV last night.
In one of the best football games I have seen in my short lifetime, our plucky Matildas defied all logic and odds to beat a stacked Great Britain team 4-3, and progress to the Olympic semi-finals with a solid chance of getting at the very least a bronze medal.
It was a game that seemingly had more heroes than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featuring some exceptional quality football and showcasing some of the best footballing talent in the world, men or women.
It was a far cry compared to Wednesday night when the Olyroos played their final group game against Egypt. Unfortunately, I must confess that I almost fell asleep in the first half of that match.
We didn’t seem to have any sort of creativity or urgency at all, even though we knew that we could probably take it to Egypt, having previously beaten Argentina 2-0 and narrowly missing out to Spain 1-0. We seemed emotionally flat and I am willing to guess that I wasn’t the only one who was bored with the match.
The theme was almost constant throughout the two teams’ respective group stages. The Matildas downed New Zealand 2-1 with flair and style. The Olyroos ground out a scrappy win over Argentina.
The Matildas fought hard but ultimately couldn’t overcome Sweden in a 4-2 loss. The Olyroos played for a draw against Spain and didn’t get it.
Even when the Matildas played questionably against the might of the USA, we still showed more heart than the Olyroos did against Egypt.
While I was disappointed with the men crashing out of the tournament at the group stage (as we all were) after all of the hype surrounding this team, my response was not an anguished cry of pain and a few salty tears, but a frustrated shake of the head and a resignation to yet another disappointing performance in a major tournament by an Australian national football team.
The game had been frustrating at best and horrible at worst. My faith in Australian football had yet again been challenged.
And then: salvation.
It started with Teagan Micah inexplicably saving thunderbolts from veteran British strikers after only a handful of caps, even if they would have been ruled out for offside had they scored.
Then came the impeccable Alanna Kennedy’s power header for our first goal from a sublime set-piece routine, redeeming herself from her Rio penalty miss five years ago.
Full credit to the Brits. They came back in the second half with two goals from Ellen White to force the Aussies into a comeback.
And who else could score such a crucial goal in the final minute of regular time to force the game to extra time, but the legend that is Samantha May Kerr.
After jumping up, doing a mini-dance and sitting back down, I thought this game couldn’t get any better. Honestly, thinking I knew my luck, I thought the game would go to penalties (which I hate with a passion) and with our recent history I thought we’d be knocked out. I was wrong.
Extra time began. I think we all knew immediately that the penalty call was wrong, there was no contact between Ellie Carpenter (who has played superbly in each game Australia have played) and Nikita Parris.
So when Caroline Weir faced up against Teagan Micah, my head was in my hands. But the football gods knew what was right, even if the referee didn’t. Micah guessed the right way, perhaps diving too early but with no consequence as the weak attempt was saved. I must have woken up my entire street with my cry of “absolute legend”.
Not two minutes after I had woken up my street, I believe that I woke up my entire postcode when the young firebrand Mary Fowler’s screamer of a deflected shot looped into the top corner to hand us back the lead, much to my ecstasy and the ecstasy of every self-respecting Australian football fan.
Sam Kerr further cemented her hero status by firing a header that crashed down off the crossbar into the back of the net following a slick kickoff routine and prompting my final round of fist-pumping celebrations. The fact that she also equalled Lisa De Vanna’s goal-scoring record for the Matildas made it even sweeter.
Yes, Ellen White would complete her hat trick (how often is it that the player who scores a hat trick is on the losing side?) and force some nail-biting final minutes for the Matildas, but when the final whistle went I felt more pride and relief than when I watched Macarthur FC win their first match over the Wanderers.
It was a genuinely entertaining and absorbing game that was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.
But what made it better than the Olyroos’ performances?
Well, for starters, there was almost none of the diving that even the most traditional football fans have come to expect from matches.
After a torrid month for the phenomenon following Ciro Immobile, Raheem Sterling and co. at the Euros and certainly not forgetting the painfully slow game the Olyroos had against Argentina (there seemed to be a player on the ground from both teams every five seconds), the lovely flow of the game even in the face of questionable tackles was a delight to see.
Instead of looking for a foul, players were looking for a route to release the pass. Even when Ellie Carpenter was being dragged towards the ground with an arm around her leg by one of the British midfielders, she still tried to make the pass work.
It’s an intoxicating thing to see in the modern game and the vast majority of Matildas matches I have watched are thankfully devoid of diving.
Also, anyone who says the standard of play in the women’s game is lacking needs to wake up to themselves. The Matildas’ games at this Olympic tournament have been free-flowing, attacking football complemented with some outstanding defence, completely unlike the slow, laborious style that dominated most of the Olyroos’ games.
The men’s match against Spain was the only exception, mainly due to the outstanding talent on display in our opposition’s ranks (do Pedri, Mikel Oyarzabal, Dani Olmo ring any bells from the Euros?) rather than our own sullen play.
It makes the Matildas’ games a lot more appealing than the Olyroos from a spectator’s point of view.
Frankly, as we head into the final stages of the tournament, our standard of play will only increase. We’re poised and primed to do something that very few Australian national football teams have done: win a major international tournament.
If we win, these women will etch their names into the annals of Australian football as true legends. Come to think of it, even if we don’t win, they’ll be etched in anyway, because of the sheer spectacle and ray of hope that our Matildas have provided us during these dark COVID-19 days.
And make no mistake, they are our Matildas. I was expecting myself and the rest of Australia to be proud of this team in 2023 when we host the World Cup.
The fact that the nation is already beaming with pride shows that even if we shake our heads about the men’s national teams, we will always be able to wake up our neighbours while cheering our Matildas to gold.