Matildas captivate a nation despite Australia missing out on Olympic medal

It came down, as football always does, to a handful of moments: the inner face of a post, a deflected clearance, a miscommunication on a back-pass, the angle and spin on a corner kick.

As the bronze medal match between the Matildas and the United States heaved and tossed through the dense Kashima night, millions of fans around Australia – and around the world – hung on each of those pregnant junctures; the ones on which sport so often ricochets and spirals off into multiple futures.

Social media was a cascading wall of noise as people spilled their reactions to every shot and save into the universe. Locked-down television viewers threw up their hands and yelled into empty rooms as fouls were given or ignored. Families squealed and screamed as Ballon d’Or winner Megan Rapinoe opened the scoring with – what else – an Olimpico goal, while Matildas captain Sam Kerr became Australia’s all-time leading goalscorer with a fizzing shot too powerful for a strong hand to stop.

We gasped and groaned as Alanna Kennedy’s failed clearance fell despairingly into Rapinoe’s path for a volley to take the lead. We clenched our fists and bit our lips as Emily van Egmond almost ran the ball into her own net. We held our palms together in prayer as a penalty call was sent to VAR and felt ourselves exhale as it was waved away.

Even though we were 3-1 down at half-time – even though we had been squeezed out of our rhythm – there was never a feeling of defeat. Remember the Great Britain game, we told ourselves; remember that we never say die. Those bright yellow shirts were the first out of the changing-room. Unfinished business, the players had said: we are not leaving until we are done. And we believed them.

We sat on our hands as Kennedy misjudged a back-pass to Teagan Micah and wrinkled our noses as Carli Lloyd scored her second of the match. We pumped the air as Caitlin Foord’s header pulled us back to 4-2. We repeated Gustavsson’s “game-changers” mantra as substitutes were made by both sides on the hour: the USA introducing current stars in Rose Lavelle and Tobin Heath, Australia introducing future ones in Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross and Courtney Nevin.

We flicked our gaze to the clock as the minutes ebbed away. More substitutes, more hasty passes, more freakish moments. The 89th minute arrives, just as it did in that miraculous quarter-final, and Emily Gielnik picks the ball up 35-yards out. The sea of US defenders biblically parts as she unleashes a strike into the far corner: 4-3. We couldn’t do it again … could we?

Our bodies tense and our lungs heave and our eyes flick from frenzied play to final gasping seconds. Australia have been throwing themselves forward: all it takes is one moment. The ball comes off a player and squirms out for a corner. The players flit around the referee, arguing the point, but the full-time whistle unexpectedly rings out. It was, in the end, an anti-climactic end to a game – and a tournament – tumbling with the kind of emotion that sport so often provides.

And we were there, with them, through it all. From the opening game against New Zealand to this arresting bronze medal match, the Matildas have captivated the country whose crest they boast proudly on their chests. In the space of five months – from those early five-goal drubbings in April to this fourth-placed Olympic finish – Australia’s women’s national team have not only made sporting history, they have become the conductor of our collective emotional orchestra; an idea around which a nation can unite.

In the midst of endless lockdowns and state-based slinging matches, we have watched them, in ever-growing numbers, become a group of women we ourselves aspire to be: collaborative, diverse, humble, determined, joyous. They are now also the most-watched women’s sports team in Australian television history, capturing the imaginations of millions across the country, including generations whose future paths have been opened by these six games in Tokyo.

They may not be leaving with a medal, but this Olympic campaign has been a success for the Matildas – not so much for what they did on the pitch, perhaps, but for what they did back home. As head coach Tony Gustavsson so aptly put it: “You don’t remember what someone said, you don’t remember what they did, but you will definitely remember how you made them feel.

“You can win different things in life: you can win trophies and you can win the hearts of people. I think one of the reasons why those viewers [are] sky-high in terms of numbers is that they show that they were their crest on their chest and always give their best. The passion and the belief and what lives in this team in terms of the ‘never say die’ attitude means we connect with a lot of hearts out there and they deserve that.”