The art of queuing was on full display on Thursday night as the football community descended on Stadium Australia and tested the venue to its limits.
An absorbing game, decided by a stonewall penalty, which included six nervous minutes of injury time, was almost enough to keep the crowd entertained, but the sight of flustered parents carrying sleeping youngsters through the crowd at the train station after the game suggested that the 8pm kick off was simply too late. If truth be known, the crowd was passive for much of the game, and this massive stadium did nothing to enhance its reputation as one of the least appealing stadia to watch a game of football.
The crowds were growing at 5pm as the sun dropped and the neon lights started to dance around Olympic Park. The traditional walk from the station to the stadium, with cameramen and content makers looking for victims, gave us our first queue.
The extended forecourt of the Brewery, fenced off from the passing hordes, had a snaking line looking to enter. Completely ignoring that venue for that reason only, there was no queue whatsoever for the Locker Room just opposite. However, the bar was ten deep, unable to cope with the demand of the thirsty punters watching the Football Ferns put Norway to the sword. What a result that was, and what a great way to open the Women’s World Cup and the perfect build-up for the Matildas’ opening game of Group B against Ireland. However, the concerning news of Sam Kerr’s late omission from the team due to injury had trickled through before the end, and that was the main topic of conversation.
The crowds were now streaming towards the stadium, and with an hour to go before kick-off, there was still an incentive to be in one’s seat in time to see the pre-match ceremony. Pockets of active fans were dotted around the stadium, a vocal bunch at the front of the south end, while the bulk of the Matildas Active fans had managed to get tickets close to each other in the northern end. The poor souls in the expensive seats in the very top tier of both sides would have been spitting chips at the view afforded from the back row, but we were all here for the whole experience, and a good atmosphere with entertainment on the field would put a smile on anyone’s face.
The pre-match entertainment culminated in two super-charged national anthems, followed by an immaculately observed moment’s silence for those who lost their lives in New Zealand, and the game kicked off to a wall of noise inside the stadium. With the scores locked at 0-0 at the break, the only surprise was that Australia had not created many chances. With Caitlin Foord playing the striker role and Mary Fowler in support, we didn’t see any clear-cut opportunities and Katrina Gorry was reduced to shooting from distance to try and find a way past Courtney Brosnan in the Irish goal.
Out in the stands, all attempts to get the singing going fell on deaf ears. The stadium lacks any acoustic merit, so much so that chants and songs seem to get lost in the void unless the whole crowd is joining in. And tonight, aside from the exuberant youth giving us the Mexican wave, and various high-pitched echoes of Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi, the majority of the crowd sat on their hands and refused to be carried along by the active supporters standing in the middle of the north end. Out in the concourse, things weren’t going too well either. The queues for a drink or food were so long that they joined the line for the next outlet at the next gate. No effort had been made to cater for those simply wanting a soft drink, and many grumbling fans were still waiting in line when the second half got underway.
The Matildas pressed, but didn’t seem to have the answers. There was much endeavour up the right, but the moment that mattered came from a ball straight up the middle by Kyra Cooney-Cross. Raso was given an almighty shove in the box by Marissa Sheva, it certainly looked like a penalty in real-time, and the referee didn’t need a VAR check to make the decision. Steph Catley was supremely confident and struck the penalty high, much like Ria Percival’s in the opening game in New Zealand, but Catley’s was under the bar and emphatic, sending the whole team over to the sidelines in celebration, such was the magnitude of the moment.
Sitting at 1-0 was never going to make for a relaxing second half for Australia and their fans. After failing to take advantage of the momentum after the goal, they found themselves increasingly under pressure. Mackenzie Arnold sensed it and made sure she ate up a few minutes of regulation time, receiving treatment following a challenge in the box. The crowd finally woke up in the dying embers of the game as a number of people headed for the exits, and memories of the dramatic end to the 2015 Asian Cup men’s final at this same venue meant that the roar was in hope rather than expectation. It was Arnold again who saved deep into added time as Alana Kennedy and Gorry both mistimed their interceptions and Katie McCabe just couldn’t get enough on the shot to trouble the Matildas’ goalkeeper. The final whistle was a relief; this was not a performance to celebrate, but the result was definitely worthy of celebration for Australia.
The Irish players were frustrated in the post-match interviews, and the final quarter of an hour had seen them mount serious pressure on the Australia goal. Gorry was emotional, talking of holding her daughter in her arms and promising to her that she would do her best to make it to the Matildas side. Any question regarding captain Kerr’s absence were squashed by the media team, and quite rightly so – these players had just put in a shift for their national team, and it should have been about them. Ellie Carpenter said they had ‘checked the box’ for three points, suggesting that the result was the most important thing tonight. Clare Polkinghorne conceded that the bench was nervous coming into the final stages of the game, but once she went out on the field, the players were supremely calm. Emily Van Egmond was delighted to have returned to form at the right time and felt that, thanks to her club San Diego Wave, she had finally got past the hump of her injury spell. While Tony Gustavsson was fielding the tricky questions upstairs, his team appeared relaxed and happy as they chatted openly with the waiting media pack.
By this time, the expectation would be for a quiet departure from the stadium precinct. No, there was a horrible line at the Locker Room now for those trying to avoid the crush on the train; the lines for the train station were going nowhere, despite an hour having passed since the final whistle. It was late, the lack of food and drink and the late hour had a lot of people bleary eyed and fighting sleep as they made their way back home from the first ever World Cup finals game in Australia. All in all, this was a marvellous occasion, a spectacle befitting a major tournament, the right result for the majority of the fans here tonight, and there was an appetite for more after a dramatic opening night of fixtures. Sure, the crowd wasn’t quite as big as it should have been, but if this is what the FIFA Women’s World Cup has in store, bring it on.