The Matildas and the World Cup Crack Australia’s Code Wars


The World Cup has added a new dimension to a national sporting conversation often dominated by the rivalry between rugby and Australian rules football.

Inside the vast sweep of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, almost nobody was paying attention to what was happening on the field. Those fans who remained in their seats were staring up at the big screens, absorbed by a game a thousand miles away. Many had given up the pretense entirely: They were on the concourse, gathered around any television they could find.

The match they had come to watch at the M.C.G. was a significant one. Only a couple of games remained in the regular season of the Australian Football League, and the two teams in attendance, Carlton and Melbourne, were jockeying for position in the playoffs. The stakes were high enough to draw a crowd of almost 70,000 fans.

For much of the first quarter, though, the spectators’ eyes and minds were elsewhere: In Brisbane, to be exact, where Australia’s World Cup quarterfinal with France had gone to a penalty kick shootout. The live sporting event playing out in front of them could not compete with the appeal of the Matildas. At this point, very little can.

Over the course of the last three weeks, Australia has fallen — and fallen hard — for its women’s soccer team. The whole country seems to be decked out in green and gold. Images of Matildas players beam out from billboards and television screens and the front pages of every newspaper.

One paper, The Courier-Mail of Brisbane, was briefly rebranded as The Kerr-ier Mail, in honor of Sam Kerr, Australia’s captain. Anthony Albanese, the prime minister, has expressed support for a national holiday if the team wins the World Cup.

“We went out on a team walk in Brisbane before the France game,” defender Clare Hunt said. “And I had a moment where I thought: ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening.’ We were swarmed by the public, and they were chanting for us. We are a little separate from it, but when you’re in packed stadiums, when you see people on the streets, see people investing in women’s soccer, you realize what’s happening.”

The Matildas’ games have consistently shattered records for television viewing figures. Their crucial group stage victory against Canada attracted an audience of 4.7 million people, making it the most-watched program of the year on the national Seven Network.

The Australia team, including Sam Kerr, wearing No. 20, applauded fans after its quarterfinal win against France on Saturday.Dan Peled/Reuters

Their next game, against Denmark in the round of 16, was watched by a total of about 6.5 million people. It was the biggest television event of the year, on any network, for roughly four days: until the peak audience for Australia-France in the quarterfinals stretched beyond seven million.

That figure does not include those who streamed it online or the vast crowds that gathered in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to watch it en masse. By most estimates, it was the nation’s highest-rated sports event in a decade. The team’s semifinal match with England on Wednesday was cumulatively expected to surpass the 8.8 million who watched Cathy Freeman win gold in the 400 meters at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The best gauge of how deep the Matildas’ impact runs, though, is in the reaction from Australia’s other major sports. For years, soccer, men’s or women’s, has struggled to compete for both attention and revenue in what is an unusually rich sporting ecosystem, fading in comparison not only to cricket, the national summer game, but to a panoply of winter sports, all of which are known, a little unhelpfully, as “footy.”

“For a long time, the country was divided along the Barassi Line,” said Hunter Fujak, a lecturer in sports management at Deakin University. The line, named in tribute to the famed former player, coach and commentator Ron Barassi, is an imaginary, but potent, fissure. It runs from northwest to southeast, splitting Australia’s population, if not its geography, roughly in half.

To the west of the line (Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Tasmania) lies Australian rules football country. East of it (Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra) is rugby territory. The latter comes in two forms: rugby union, comprising teams of 15 players and broadly considered middle class; and rugby league, the more popular and more blue collar version played with teams of 13.

Traditionally, relations between those various sports — the so-called football codes — are frosty. They have tended to hover, in fact, somewhere between resolutely competitive and downright hostile, a phenomenon known in Australia as the code wars. The battle is a prominent enough feature of the country’s cultural landscape for Fujak to have used it as the title of a book on the subject.

“All of the codes have historically been resistant to each other’s success,” Fujak said. In part, the motivation is just business: Australia may be an immense country, but its population is relatively small.

The A.F.L. and the N.R.L. — the national rugby league tournament — are competing for the same limited number of eyeballs, broadcast deals, commercial revenue and governmental subsidy. The working assumption has always been that one’s rise must come at the expense of the other. “There are only so many people to go around,” Fujak said. “You would expect that of Coke and Pepsi, so why would the sports leagues be any different?”

Luke Ryan and Alex Pearce of the Fremantle Dockers watched the World Cup match between Australia and France on a big screen before their Australian Football League match.Paul Kane/Getty Images

The enmity is so keenly felt, though, because it runs significantly deeper than mere mercantile instinct. “There’s a very strong rivalry at the cultural level,” Fujak said. “At a fan level, the sport you follow is inseparable from identity. For Victorians, being an A.F.L. fan is part of who you are, where you’re from.”

In that power struggle, soccer has long been little more than collateral damage. If the A.F.L. and N.R.L. have cast themselves as not just authentically Australian but as a central pillar of a localized identity, soccer has been projected as an often unwelcome import.

Though it has always been popular as a participatory sport, the game — as one notorious, offensive mantra put it — was long cast as a lesser form, simultaneously effeminate, foreign and homosexual. Craig Foster, a former Australia player and now a human-rights activist, recently told the BBC that the A.F.L., in particular, has been “antagonistic” toward soccer.

That animosity has manifested in both the practical — refusing soccer teams access to its facilities, declining to allow its stadiums to be used as part of Australia’s doomed bid to host the 2022 men’s World Cup — and the petty.

It was noted, for example, that the A.F.L. chose to release its schedule for this season at almost the exact minute Australia’s men’s team kicked off against Argentina in the men’s World Cup last year. The A.F.L. has always maintained it was just a quirk of timing.

In the weeks leading up to the Women’s World Cup, it appeared little had changed. Though several rugby league stadiums were slated to host matches, the A.F.L. had not been willing to surrender its largest arenas, the M.C.G. and the Sydney Cricket Ground, two of Australia’s best-known venues.

That posture, Fujak said, was not unreasonable: FIFA’s rules would have required the A.F.L. to vacate its two major arenas for two months at the very height of the season. “The demands were too onerous,” he said. Still, it did not exactly suggest that Australia’s other sports were about to show the Women’s World Cup, or the Matildas, much hospitality.

Over the last few weeks, that concern has been proved demonstrably false. “This is without doubt one of the most exciting times to be an Australian sports fan in the country’s history,” said Andrew Abdo, the N.R.L.’s chief executive. “The Matildas’ performances in the World Cup have made a monumental contribution to the rise of women’s sport in Australia.”

In deeds, as much as in words, the A.F.L. has been no less effusive. It has moved kickoff times to accommodate Matildas games. On Saturday, it broadcast the France quarterfinal before, during and after games in Melbourne and Sydney.

Australia during the quarterfinals.Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters

Matthew Nicks, the head coach of the Adelaide Crows, admitted he would rather “be watching the Matildas” than guiding his team in a game against the Brisbane Lions. He and his counterpart, Chris Fagan, were filmed watching the penalty shootout on a phone when they were supposed to be conducting their postgame media duties.

Both codes of football, the commentator George Megalogenis wrote in The Brisbane Times, have been “dreading the moment that soccer holds the nation’s attention, and now that moment is here.” So compelling has the Matildas’ journey been, though, that they have melted away every last vestige of resistance.

Foster, the former men’s player, believes that has been rooted more in pragmatism than a fundamental, lasting shift in the way the codes regard each other. The A.F.L. agreed to show the France game in its stadiums because “it was worried nobody would turn up” for the fixtures otherwise, he said.

Fujak, too, suggested that willfully ignoring the tournament would have made the A.F.L. look “sulky and negative” at a moment of uplifting national unity. “It’s the most strategically astute sports league in the country,” he said. “It might be cynical, but I think they saw it as the lesser of two evils.”

He wondered if the A.F.L. had made something of a calculation. “They’ve always played the long game,” he said. “Soccer has moments of success but, come the end of the tournament, it fades away again.”

The risk, this time, is that the effect will be more lasting, that this tournament has on some level reshaped Australia’s entrenched sporting landscape. The code wars may rumble on, in some form, but the Matildas, at least, have risen above them. They have become, in three short weeks, a core part of the country’s identity.


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