When Australia and England play at a sold-out Stadium Australia on Wednesday, a spot in the Women’s World Cup final is on the line. This is one of the oldest and greatest rivals in sports.
England has been to two World Cup semifinals and won the European Championship last year, but Australia’s brave Matildas have won the hearts of a country that usually cares more about other sports.
Fans of Australian rules and rugby league may not know much about the finer points of the round-ball game, but they know “Aussie grit” when they see it, and last Saturday’s exciting penalty shootout win over France certainly fit the bill.
Fans all over the country praised goalie Mackenzie Arnold’s stops and Cortnee Vine’s winning chance as if they had won the event. Since then, the media has given a sport that is often looked down upon Down Under a lot of attention.
The next two biggest stadiums in Sydney will let people in without tickets watch Wednesday’s game on big screens, and the prime minister has almost promised a public holiday if the co-hosts win on Sunday.
Before they can even think about playing Spain, though, they have to get past England. The English team knows what it’s like to be under pressure to do well at home because they won the Euros last year and were cheered on by their fellow countrymen.
They have one of the best teachers in the world in the Dutchwoman Sarina Wiegman, and most of their players play for top clubs in tough European leagues.
On their way to winning the European championship, the players became closer, which has helped them deal with setbacks like losing key players to injury or ban before and during the event.
Middle half Millie Bright has been great in the three-strong backline. After getting hurt, Keira Walsh has gotten back to her holding role, and Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp’s speed on the wings would challenge any team.
England beat Nigeria in the round of 16 with a penalty shootout drama of their own. They should have some backing in the 75,000-person crowd from fans who came from far away and from the big number of English people who live in Sydney.
Before Australia’s win on Saturday, most of the talk about the event was about scorer Sam Kerr’s hurt leg. She is the only Matildas player that everyone in the country knows.
Kerr hasn’t started a game at the event yet, and she might not be on the field when the game starts on Wednesday. However, players like Hayley Raso, Mary Fowler, and Caitlin Foord have stepped up in her place.
Most of Australia’s high-profile sports matches against its former colonial masters take place on cricket or rugby fields. Wiegman said that the rivalry was still easy to understand, even after he took a crash course in it.
“They want to beat us, and we also want to beat them,” she said.