Apostolos Stamatelopoulos has the longest and one of the hardest names to say correctly in the A-League - but fans are quickly getting used…
Right, Australia, this one’s for you. For all the drab friendlies at empty stadiums you had to sit through. For the endless qualifiers against smaller nations in a place you hadn’t heard of.
For the nights of broken sleep to tune in and the mornings after that made you question if you were the only one who did. For seeing it was another international week and dreading its interruption to club football.
For the times you would watch other countries succeed at tournaments and see their home cities erupt, and wonder whether you would ever see a day when Australia could be that.
It’s for Nice and Edmonton, Rio and Yokohama, Kaiserslautern and Montevideo. It’s for Mana Iwabuchi and Fabio Grosso. It’s Peter Hore running on at the ‘G, it’s selling nude calendars for ‘marketing’, it’s Emiliano Martinez’s save, it’s Harry Kewell’s toe, it’s having to boycott a tour to get paid, it’s wearing men’s hand-me-downs for training, it’s Sam Kerr’s calf, it’s telling the world to suck a fat one. It’s getting slammed for pronouncing foreign names correctly. It’s for ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters.’
On Wednesday evening, the Matildas will walk on the pitch, face the lights and engage in a game of football that will captivate those in our country like few events have done so before. Australia v England in the World Cup semi-final.
And so we enter the final stages of a remarkable World Cup campaign that has converted agnostics to believers, woken the beast and broken down the apathy for Australian football.
These 23 women have united a nation in scenes that haven’t been witnessed for a generation. Ireland, Nigeria, Canada, Denmark and France have all come and gone. Spain or Sweden may lie ahead. But first, and most importantly: England.
The old foe. The mother country. It’s a fixture so fitting for the tournament itself, and for reasons that are difficult to explain, it is the sort of game you want as a semi-final rather than a final. It just feels right.
Before being appointed as Socceroos boss in 2013 Ange Postecoglou wrote in an article for The Age: ‘The national team is there to sell hope, not to dampen dreams.’
And Australia has, over these last three weeks, been dreaming. The country has embraced the Matildas in a way that has been both predictable and surprising to those who’ve been around for the long journey of football’s journey for acceptance.
The embrace has seen politicians – many of who haven’t made the game’s journey easy – trip over themselves for a photo opportunity, quick wins and basically any distraction.
But beyond the politicking, there lies a deeper reason why the Matildas have been embraced so widely: we see bits of ourselves in them. They reflect who we want to be, as people, as Australians: principled and resilient, honest and open, humble and smart. Though, as we all know, football is not a game of character.
Once Advance Australia Fair tails away, the nervous energy waves through the crowd, the teams huddle and the referee blows her whistle, what will determine Australia’s fate is their ability to make the right decisions at the right time.
For Australia, their focus has been to treat this as just another game. To stick to the bubble they’ve created and continue to ride the wave of the nation. They arrived early into Sydney to setup base and allow the players to settle. The majority of the lead up has been spent recovering from that gruelling quarter-final, tending to sore bodies and keeping things relaxed.
England, by contrast, finished their quarter-final in normal time and have had the benefit of returning to the familiar surroundings of their World Cup base on the Central Coast. They’re anticipating a hostile environment, but are relishing the occasion.
Both sides have succeeded in penalties this tournament, England coming out on top in their round of 16 clash with Nigeria and Australia more recently in that quarter final against France.
Who comes out on top? It is anyone’s guess. Australia have the magic going forward with Kerr and Mary Fowler who have the ability to produce something from nothing. The battle down the left will be intriguing with Caitlin Foord coming up against Lucy Bronze. The well balanced trio of Ella Toone, Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh in midfield will keep Katrina Gorry and Kyra Cooney-Cross busy. And Australia’s backline will be tough to pass for Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo. In other words; it’s harder to pick than a broken nose.
So whether you’re watching for the first time or you’re one of those who’ve been part of football’s journey since the start, just enjoy yourselves.
These are the nights and these are the occasions that make it all worthwhile. We need to hold onto these moments, because it won’t be like this again.
Even if Australia reach another semi-final, a final, win things, it won’t have that same feeling of dreaming for something your whole life, never thinking it would happen to you and then seeing it happen.
Drink it in. This is what it’s all about, these really are the good times: for them, for you, for all of us.