The local newspaper headlines in Australia grew increasingly breathless as the Matildas advanced through the World Cup. At first, the focus was Sam Kerr and her recovery from a calf strain. Would she sit out the group stage? The whole tournament? Then when Kerr retook the field and the Matildas began surging — demolishing Canada 4-0 after a shaky start, confidently dispatching Denmark in the round of 16, forcing the issue against France in quarters — the hype grew, and grew and grew.

The Matildas’ success — and it is an enormous success regardless of finishing fourth in the ultimate rankings from the tournament — should be a template for future programs for what can happen when enough of the right people get on board and pull in the same direction. And the work done at this World Cup across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand should be a template for Women’s World Cups to come.

Through the quarterfinals, FIFA reported just over 1.73M total attendance. Add it to the announced semifinal attendance, that’s 1,853,029 in total without the figures from the final and third-place game. Total attendance in France in 2019 was 1,131,312 — this World Cup has seen a 63% increase, and it’s still growing. Thus far, the tournament has at least broken even at $570 million, per remarks by Gianni Infantino before the final.

There were worries before this tournament about the long travel and the winter weather potentially deterring fans. But that didn’t pan out at all. It helps when a host nation goes deep in a tournament, but there was also a tremendous amount of work that went into this bid. The presence of the Matildas, tournament signage on the street and the big well-constructed fan zones are an indicator of good local government buy-in. And the payoff has been enormous.

Without hyperbole, the quarterfinal shootout against France halted the country in its tracks. Even the vaunted Australian Football League paused so that everyone, including the players on the field, could watch Cortnee Vine win it for Australia with their tenth kick in the longest round of penalties in World Cup history.


From all corners of the country 🫶🇦🇺#Matildas #FIFAWWC #TilitsDone

— CommBank Matildas (@TheMatildas) August 13, 2023

The crowds only seemed to get bigger and louder for their semifinal match against England. In addition to the 75,784 at Stadium Australia on Wednesday night, viewership across the country peaked at 11.15 million Australians. The average audience was 7.13 million, according to OzTam ratings and Channel Seven.

“I think the buzz, and the people that have interest and the support that we’ve had has gone to another level,” Matildas’ defender Steph Catley said. “I can’t name one game coming to this tournament where I didn’t feel emotional looking out on the streets and seeing the people flocking to the games like there was nothing else happening in the world other than our game.”

Semifinals can be particularly fraught in the way they carry that whisper of hope of going to the final, one game from a trophy. So the heartache was correspondingly deep as the Matildas lost 3-1 to England. And maybe it hurt that much more to go out at this stage in a game where national hero Kerr was finally, finally starting and delivering bombs like this too:


The Australia forward’s out-of-this-world strike is our Goal of the Day 🇦🇺

— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 16, 2023

The buy-in from Australians was only to be expected from a country that loves the sport this dearly, and which enjoyed soccer more than they might have thought. Even though anecdotal wisdom holds that Australia is a country where rugby and cricket hold sway, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says that soccer is actually the country’s most popular team sport by participation. Combine that with a competitive team of genial stars and you have a recipe for popularity.



For eight minutes, Sam Kerr let Australia rejoice. Her legacy will last much longer

From a U.S. perspective, there is a subtle but important distinction in the vibe of the respective support for these national teams. The U.S. loves sports too, but it loves winners more, and as the USWNT has established themselves with a winning record, the criticism has been much more vociferous than the Australians would have been had their team gone out at a similar stage.

Yes, there’s been frequent criticism of head coach Tony Gustavsson and his coaching and personnel decisions, but there doesn’t seem to be as cutthroat an attitude towards the Matildas in this tournament. The Australian fans aren’t demanding perfection at all costs nor do they classify the team a failure for losing. The U.S. loves winners, but in this moment, the Australians love sports. And the Matildas have been pure sports in a way that makes you feel everything at once and makes you want to be with your best friends and your family because it’s too much for one person to hold without sharing.

It’s not just the on-field preparation that helped the Matildas build towards this moment, though they did do that well in making an effort to play as many top-10 squads as possible and build their confidence with wins against England, France, Spain and Sweden in recent friendlies. They invested in their squad, bringing along younger players like Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Cortnee Vine and Charlotte Grant.

But they’ve also done off-field work too, working hard to plant the Matildas amongst the foundational sports and pop culture of the country. You couldn’t walk past a magazine stand throughout the tournament without a Matilda on a cover. Kerr’s autobiography dropped in July. Disney+ put out a six-episode Matildas documentary following them through Asian Cup qualifying and beyond, a long-term project that shows someone at Football Australia was certainly thinking of how to capitalize on this moment when they were awarded the bid for 2023.

It was a true hearts-and-minds effort, combined with a much-improved logistical approach on the ground from France 2019 with more host city signage, ads on public transportation, engaging fan zones showing games to the public and metric tons more merchandise available.

And it worked. You couldn’t have missed the videos of people across the countries in parks and pubs and AFL stadiums stopping where they were, necks craned up at the nearest screen. The quarterfinal was the most watched sporting event in Australia in 18 years, the most watched TV event of the year — at least until the semifinal when nine out of 10 Australians watching broadcast television that night were watching the Matildas.

In talking to Australians, it is no exaggeration to say that quarterfinal penalty shootout became a moment of gestalt consciousness for Australians, all of them across the country existing together in the same moment with the same hope. Calling it a national moment is not meant to be some generic shorthand for “lots of people watched,” even journalists who have covered the Matildas for years seemed dazed as they tried to describe just how surreal all of the attention has been.

“We wanted to do something amazing and sort of wake up the public to what we were doing in women’s football and I think we’ve done that,” said Catley after the loss to England. There were questions for her and the older players about what’s next and where do we go from here. Some of it was trying to give the players solace in the only way that a journalist could, by asking them to look forward instead of reflecting immediately on their pain — although they were asked to do that too. But some of it was a clear appetite for more.

“The legacy that we wanted to leave throughout this World Cup was to inspire the generation coming through, I think we’ve done more than that. I think we’ve done more than what we thought that we would accomplish,” goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold said. “To see the reaction that we’ve received from the whole country has been absolutely unreal. And I think this is only the beginning.”

Arnold wasn’t referencing just advancing this far into the World Cup. It was about the packed stadiums, the fans desperately crowded around their hotel, the front page articles, the way you couldn’t walk into a sports store without seeing a Matildas jersey — or, by semifinals, the way you couldn’t walk into a sports store without seeing a sold-out sign on the shelf of Matildas’ merch.

Kerr was asked after the semifinal if she thought the Matildas had finally proven that Australia is a football nation.

“I think the crowds and the fans have proved that, not us,” she said. “I think they’re the ones that have come out and supported us and watched us on the big screen, bought our jerseys. I think that’s all down to the fans showing that this country really will get behind football if you bring the world game to our country.”

There will surely be other factors to dissect in the months after the tournament; FIFA would be foolish not to use this as a case study for future World Cups. Let this 2023 World Cup be the best World Cup ever, until four years from now, and four years from then, until the success of this tournament stops being a surprise to anyone at all.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)