Australia’s historic World Cup gives fans generation-defining memories

SYDNEY, Australia — Some will tell you that the Women’s World Cup branding around the host cities in Australia and New Zealand is scant, but in all nine, it’s there. You’ll see the touch of the tournament across billboards, countless lampposts and trams. There are always the ones that tell you where you are, fabric declaring “Sydney/Gadigal” waving in the breeze across the bay from the Opera House — basically, the type of sign you’d need if you had been on two dozen flights in a month and had completely lost your bearings.

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They’re accompanied by those screaming “Beyond Greatness,” the most recent in a long line of pithy tournament slogans that mean little — four years ago, France’s official slogan was “Dare to Shine.” But Beyond Greatness — was it a rallying cry asking players to use the biggest stages to offer themselves to the world, to delight with tekkers, goals and saves? Or was it a hope for the tournament to step out from the long shadow cast by the men’s game, and go beyond that specific kind of greatness?

In Brisbane on Aug. 12, after what felt like an eternity of a match between Australia and France, with the sun long having set and the humidity of the evening cloaking the crowd, adding to the stress and frenzy of the atmosphere, Cortnee Vine slipped her penalty underneath France goalkeeper Solène Durand and the crowd lost its collective mind.

It went far beyond the 50,000-ish people rubbing shoulders at Lang Park, the scenes that have been watched and rewatched on phones, computers and TVs around this vast country, from dedicated fan festivals to concourses at AFL stadiums and of course that flight — with that one person confirmed as legendary for watching “Lord of the Rings” instead — the attention of a nation trained on the team of 23. And in those moments, that one collective release from all watching and the ensuing pandemonium, the desperate and gasping love Aussies instantly showed for their history-making team with the stadium in Brisbane still roaring and the players flocking to each other on the pitch, that was the moment that went beyond great, that moment was awesome.

The days that followed stayed awesome from an Aussie perspective with everyone everywhere talking all at once about the Tillies. From R&B radio DJs who clearly didn’t follow the sport to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese floating (and backtracking on) the idea of a public holiday should Australia claim the big prize at the end, Australia’s familiar gold and green was everywhere you looked as the whole country buzzed ahead of their semifinal against England.

The fan festival in Sydney was a mirror of the others around the country — barely any standing room left for those who hoped to be there to witness more Matildas history. The goals, misses and leniency from the referee all drew plenty of noise from those in attendance, though nothing could top the crescendo when Sam Kerr equalised with a sublime solo effort. Tumbalong Park was united in appreciation for the Matildas’ captain whose calf had helped keep her from becoming a national hero and face of the team during the home tournament.

In that moment, the Aussies knew, as so many loyal women’s football fans had been preaching for years, that Kerr was indeed a special player, another in a long line of national sporting heroes following on from the likes of Cathy Freeman, Sally Pearson, Shane Warne and Ash Barty. But it wasn’t Kerr alone; those who had fallen under the Tillies’ spell were there to tell you about Caitlin Foord’s tireless running, Hayley Raso’s tenacity [and ribbons], Katrina Gorry’s mammoth presence, Mackenzie Arnold’s superb saves, Clare Hunt’s consistency, Mary Fowler’s… well, you get the picture.

By the time England striker Alessia Russo’s goal rolled beyond Arnold, those in attendance both in the stadium and in the fan zone knew there would be no coming back and no place in the final for the Matildas. They dispersed at a record pace once the whistle had been blown 11 miles away.

It had been four days of “Tillies Fever,” of something that was indeed beyond great for the Australian people; they had come together in joy and would be bound in heartbreak. The question of lasting legacy always one to hang heavy around host nations of major tournaments. Had minds been changed? Would investment in women’s football improve? Would the Matildas go on and copy what the Netherlands and England managed over the past two Euros and begin to sell out their home matches? Did “Beyond Greatness” actually mean anything?

A lasting legacy is something that can only be measured in time and growth, but remember Macca’s saves? Remember Vine’s winning penalty against France and those delicious few days when it seemed like Australia really could go all the way? Whatever happens from here, those were awesome.

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