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WOMEN'S FOOTBALL

Football fever grips Australia as Matildas’ adventures continue

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The largest crowd to watch a sporting event in Australia since Sydney 2000

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has had an enormous impact on the Australian football public, with the quarter-final against France becoming the most watched sports event since the Sydney Olympics.

Nothing evokes emotions like football, and no event heightens those emotions like a World Cup.

Millions of Australians discovered that on Saturday night as the Matildas defeated France in a penalty shootout for the ages.

Twenty out of the 22 players on the pitch were required to step up for the ultimate test of mettle. Can you imagine the pressure of taking a spot kick for a place at a FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final? The crowd barely able to watch. The noise. The roar.

Australian forward Cortnee Vine could scarcely believe what had happened. Speaking to the media after scoring the match-winning penalty, the look on her face said it all – excitement, relief and every emotion possible.

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“It looks like it’s a footballing nation,” she exclaimed. “I think the whole Australian public has really started to become a footballing nation. I think you can tell from tonight that we are, and it’s amazing.”

Something special is happening in Australia. This is a country where the sports media cycle is dominated by Australian rules football and rugby league, and where the round ball game is often relegated to an afterthought.

But now, in a wave that is building faster than anyone could have imagined, football is the only subject on everyone’s lips.

There are tangible numbers that can describe the cut-through of the quarter-final against France.

Nearly 50,000 were in the stands at Brisbane Stadium, while 7.2 million people tuned in to watch the match on Seven – the largest figures for an Australian sporting event since Cathy Freeman ran her iconic race at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

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The Matildas also occupied the front and back page of every major newspaper in the country.

Yet, just as important when understanding the fever-pitch that Australia is reaching are the intangibles.

From Tasmania to the Northern Territory, from dedicated live sites to flights 38,000 feet in the air, people were tuning in. Fans attending games of different sporting codes packed the concourses of stadiums, desperate to get a glimpse of the penalties.

You could tell the result of a spot kick walking down the streets of cities by the cheers or groans of the people echoing out from houses and bars.

This is the biggest week in Australian football history, and it is being driven by the women’s game.

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Many point to parallels with John Aloisi’s penalty that helped the Socceroos qualify for the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006. This generation of players grew up screaming Aloisi’s name after scoring penalties in the backyard and at school. The next generation will grow up doing the same for Vine.

The legacy of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 is something that Australia and New Zealand have been contemplating and preparing for from the moment that the bid was won.

In a country where rugby union rules, New Zealand have perhaps had an even tougher task for eyeballs than their neighbours, but the sight of a sold-out semi-final between Spain and Sweden will quell any doubts about the engagement of Kiwis in the tournament.

For Australia, the historic run by their team – once recognised as the most loved in the country – has fully enraptured the country. Men, women and children, whether they have previously been football fans or not, have been spellbound.

“We played a quarter-final against an entire nation,” France coach Herve Renard reflected after their quarter-final defeat. Watching the videos, seeing the reactions and hearing the noise in the stands, it is difficult to disagree.

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Perhaps most exciting is the fact that this is a team with two games still to play. That penalty shoot-out was special, but it could get even bigger. In cafes, on buses, in their workplaces, Australians are wondering out loud: what if we won the whole thing?

This is not a country that is used to success in football on the international stage. It is barely used to the global game receiving attention at all. To be so tantalisingly close to the biggest prize in football is mind-blowing. The momentum is building with every game, and one can only imagine the heights it will scale if the Matildas can overcome European champions England on Wednesday.

Millions of Australians have experienced for the first time what only a World Cup can give you. The excitement. The nerves. The tension. The explosion of joy, unbridled. The devastation on the other side. It is the reason why the game is played. It is the reason why it is beloved.

Matildas goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold – who made three saves in the shootout, and was named VISA Player of the Match – was understandably emotional after the victory.

“This is a night that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It’s so special to be able to share this with Australia,” she said, through bleary eyes.

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The match against England will be enormous for all sorts of reasons. But if you want to understand the impact that this tournament has already had, you only needed to head to a community ground on Sunday morning. You needed to watch as a youngster took a deep breath and lined up to score what might be the first penalty of their lives. You needed to watch as they peeled away, celebrating in the vein of Vine.

“This has to be our year,” the newly crowned national hero exclaimed after the match. Record numbers of Australians will be hoping she is right.

There really is nothing like football.

-FIFA

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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WOMEN'S FOOTBALL

Dominican Republic 2024:Flamingos land in the Dominican Republic!

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Nigeria’s U17 girls, Flamingos, have secured their ticket to the 8th FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup finals to be staged in the Dominican Republic later this year, after a 2-0 defeat of their Liberian counterparts at the MKO Abiola National Stadium, Abuja on Friday.

Victory took the aggregate tally to 6-1 in favour of Nigeria, with extraordinary poacher Harmony Chidi setting a record of 13 goals in a qualifying series that will be difficult to equal in years to come. She had 11 goals before kick-off, but netted the two goals of the evening to take Nigeria’s total of the series to a whopping 25. Central African Republic fell by a dozen goals while Burkina Faso fell 1-7 on aggregate.

Her first came after only four minutes when she sped past the Liberian defence to toe-poke the ball beyond the flailing arms of goalkeeper Makula Konneh from a cross by Shakirat Moshood.

A goal feast was expected, but this did not happen, as Peace Effiong had a close call in the 17th and Moshood rocked the crossbar a minute after from 20 yards. Moshood also missed from close range with 10 minutes left of the first half.

In the 56th minute, Moshood blasted beyond the goalpost when faced with Konneh, but Harmony Chidi made sure of her brace seven minutes later when she lashed the ball beyond Konneh’s reach as Nigeria seized the ball from a defensive slip-up by the visitors.

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The 8th FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup finals will be staged in the cities of Santiago de los Caballeros and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, 16th October – 3rd November.

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WOMEN'S FOOTBALL

‘It shall be showers of goals’, vows Flamingos ahead of Liberia clash

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Head Coach Bankole Olowookere is confident that the Nigeria U17 girls, Flamingos, will not take their feet off the pedal when they take on their Liberian counterparts in a FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup final qualifying match in Abuja on Friday.

“We are battle-ready for the match on Friday. The girls are raring to go because they want to go to the World Cup. They are already dreaming of flying to the Dominican Republic.

“There is so much excitement in camp, and they are self-assured. However, I have warned them that it is never over until it is over. There should be no display of over-confidence on the pitch. We must approach the match like the first leg was a drawn game.”

Nigeria won the first leg 4-1 in Monrovia on Sunday, with 11-goal qualifying series revelation Harmony Chidi, Shakirat Moshood, Peace Effiong and substitute Blessing Ifitezue banging in the goals for the Flamingos. The hosts got their consolation goal off a penalty awarded with five minutes left of the encounter at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Paynesville.

The Flamingos will take part in the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup for the seventh time once they cross Friday’s hurdle.

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They featured at the inaugural edition in New Zealand in 2008, and subsequently at Trinidad and Tobago 2010, Azerbaijan 2012, Costa Rica 2014, Jordan 2016 and India 2022, where they won the bronze medals.  

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WOMEN'S FOOTBALL

Flamingos hammer hosts Liberia 4-1, put one leg in World Cup finals

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FIFA World Cup bronze medallists Nigeria routed Liberia 4-1 in a fast-paced FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup final qualifying round, first leg encounter in Monrovia on Sunday.

The Flamingos got off to a pretty quick start at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex at the Paynesville, but the Liberian girls, who shocked Senegal on the away-goal rule to reach this final round, warded off the early threats.

Nigeria got the ball into the net after 14 minutes, but Chadian referee Lare Lamngar ruled it off. Not to be deterred or discouraged, the Flamingos poured forward once again, and in the 19th minute, Shakirat Moshood opened the scoring from a sweet solo run.

Peace Effiong, who got a brace in the 6-0 defeat of Burkina Faso at the MKO Abiola National Stadium last month, scored in the 29th minute to put a wedge of respect between the two teams.

Usual suspect Harmony Chidi, scorer of six of the 12 goals that sank the Central African Republic, and who equally netted four in the 7-1 dismissal of Burkina Faso in the last round, headed home her 11th goal of the qualifying series in the 36th minute to put daylight between both teams.

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On resumption, Nigeria continued to dominate, and substitute Blessing Ifitezue made it four with 16 minutes left.

Liberia scored a consolation goal with five minutes left, from the penalty spot, through Yassah Gwaikolo, after substitute Onyedikachi Ekezie was adjudged to have committed a foul in the area.

The Flamingos will return to Nigeria on Tuesday, and immediately commence preparations for the return leg encounter scheduled for Friday at the MKO Abiola National Stadium, Abuja.

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