Earlier in the year I fell out of step with exercise. Granted, I have never been the most athletic or disciplined person in a room. But sitting in an office can make you forget you have a body, in a way that never happened when I worked in factories or behind a bar. My usual go-to yoga classes had become tedious and I couldn't afford a membership to one of those aggressive, red-lit gyms in my area. Then my sister suggested I join her football club for the upcoming season.
I hadn't played football with her since before the pandemic, yet team sport seemed like a straightforward way to cram in exercise, the way a parent would sneak veggies into their kid's bolognese. It was my favourite growing up, and being both Italian and Croatian, there's something about football that feels embedded in your DNA. Plus, I got to dress like Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham which was particularly appealing as I had just cut my hair into a heartthrob bob.
But you know that phenomenon where, say, you fall in love with the Fiat 500 and begin to see them everywhere? Well that happened. It was like culture conspired to make my life the most football-concentrated it had ever been. Or maybe, I just subliminally read the signs and signed up as a response (most likely, this is the case). Either way, I was and still am, utterly obsessed.
Terrace culture was on the rise, repackaged as Blokecore on TikTok. I attended my first Liberty A-League grand final. Everyone started wearing adidas Sambas. The Matildas documentary landed on Disney+. I finally read and felt connected to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and the lesser Colin Firth-led film. Most notably, the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup was around the corner and Australia and New Zealand were set to host. What a moment to be part of a women's football Whatsapp group chat!
Flash forward to now: the Matildas have made it into the FIFA World Cup semi final, and even if you weren't remotely into sport, Australia's nail-biting win against France on August 12 would've almost certainly converted you. Channel Seven recorded a record-breaking night of free-to-air TV with 4.43 million Australians tuning in, dispelling the myth that there is no appetite for women's sport. Australia, the great sporting nation, has captured the attention of its citizens who've never related to this part of the country's reputation. We have all come down with an acute case of football fever, something the men's side has never quite managed. Even Prime Minister Albanese is floating the idea of a bonus public holiday if the Matildas reach the World Cup final (although, maybe the money would be better spent funding the sport itself?).
Image: Rachel Bach of @bythewhiteline
TikTok is serving all my colleagues and friends clips of Sam Kerr and Ellie Carpenter doing press. It's populating Katie McCabe's seemingly impossible corner goal. There's a detailed chart doing the rounds on social media that documents all the queer romances, relationships and rumoured hookups between players in Women's Soccer, thanks to @notafrakkingtoaster and @helen-everythingqueer on Tumblr who make this whole thing feel like one big giddy fandom. It's a win for the girlies, the gays and the theys.
High on the memes and sheer euphoria of watching the FIFA Women's World Cup, it can be easy to forget that in the world of football, these players are still the underdogs. Marta, a legend of the game, celebrated her final World Cup this year. She told the press, "Do you know what's cool, when I started out I didn't have a female idol. You guys didn't show any of our games. How was I supposed to see other players? But today we have our own references." If anything, the tournament serves as a marketing campaign to rally behind women's sport, as people have been doing long before many of us, rightfully, jumped on the bandwagon. Germany is out, so is Brazil and the USA – a sign that the rest of the world is catching up on a technical level.
But there is still much more progress to be made behind the scenes and women's football needs our support long after the fever dies down. Jamaica's Reggae Girlz had to crowdfund their way to the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. Canada and Nigeria are in pay disputes with their respective football federations. At home, the Matildas are still campaigning for equal pay with the Socceroos, despite being the better ranked team. And this is at the top. At a grassroots level, women's teams like my own regularly struggle to get referees, let alone linesmen. And that's if they have a team to play on to begin with, which in country towns is disappointingly often the case.
All of this is to say, maybe more of us would feel differently about sport if we had something that represented us, something we could feel proud of. Thanks to the Matildas, both former and standing, we do. Let's keep the enthusiasm up.