It’s been a big year for the Matildas.
A historic fourth place at the Women’s World Cup – and the incredible journey that took them there – galvanized support across the country and attracted many new fans.
Who could forget the heroics of Mackenzie Arnold and Cortnee Vine to help Australia win a penalty shootout against France, or the emphatic 4-0 win over Canada to advance to the knockout stage as a early elimination was envisaged?
And don’t get us started Mary Fowler’s sublime pass to Caitlin Foord against Denmark.
The Matildas broke audience records in the process. Nearly half the nation watched the semi-final against England, with the team receiving praise from die-hard football fans as well as casual spectators discovering the beautiful game for the first time.
However, over the years the challenge has often been harnessing the support that comes with an event as big as a World Cup – particularly when Australia exceed expectations – and sustaining it in the local leagues.
The sport almost succeeded after the Socceroos’ strong performance at the Men’s World Cup late last year, but the hype died down after the Australian Professional League (APL) agreed to host the grand final in Sydney was widely criticized by fans and an infamous ground. The invasion left one player with stitches and the local league carried out damage control.
Just this week, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold criticized the Australian government for its lack of support for soccer, saying “they (politicians) like to wear a scarf, but when they go home once When the party is over, I don’t do it.” I don’t know where they put the scarf.
“They have to throw it away, because then they forget about us.”
But with women’s membership increasing and a groundswell of support following a home World Cup, will things be different this time around?
The Mathilde effect
Goalkeeper Lydia Williams returned to the Women’s A-League following the World Cup.
A veteran of Australian rules football, Williams has seen almost it all. She is, along with compatriot Matilda Clare Polkinghorne, the only player to have represented Australia at five FIFA World Cups.
“I was actually a little surprised by how exciting it is,” she said of the buzz around the upcoming season.
“It’s been such a long time since I’ve been here, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the season goes.”
She has had a storied career at home and abroad, and this year she is back in the local league, having signed for Melbourne Victory after playing for Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Brighton & Hove Albion during the last years.
She’s one of a host of Matildas plying their trade from home this season, joining Vine, Tameka Yallop, Kyah Simon, Chloe Logarzo, Emily Gielnik and Elise Kellond-Knight.
With so many Matildas stars playing their club football in Australia, Williams says it’s the perfect time to support the league.
“A few Matildas are coming home, it’s obviously very exciting,” she said.
“It’s an honor after the World Cup to see how much of a ripple effect it has. It’s really exciting to be able to help move the game forward as national team players.”
This ripple effect is reflected in female membership across the league.
Just this week, Cortnee Vine’s Sydney FC announced an 800 per cent increase in the number of members from last year’s women’s team.
Since the World Cup and that famous penalty, Vine has become a household name, barely being able to go out in public without being recognized.
Brisbane saw an increase of more than 500 per cent in female membership last year. Newcastle, 150 percent. Ten of the twelve clubs in the women’s league have broken their squad records and matches have already started to sell out.
“Everyone wants to play right now because of the buzz of the World Cup, because of the fans who have bought season tickets and are supporting us,” Williams said.
“It really goes hand in hand… and it’s nice to see that the next generation of Australian rules footballers are really hungry for development.”
The next generation
Tameka Yallop is also returning to her roots this season and she is seeing a similar trend at her club.
She scored her penalty in the shootout in France to tie it at 5-5, before the Matildas won 7-6.
“Not just for me, but for all Matildas, I think our lives have really changed since this World Cup,” Yallop said.
It’s fitting that the legendary shootout took place in Brisbane, as she is back to play for the Roar this season, following recent stints with West Ham in England and Brann in Norway.
“It’s so cool to be back,” she said.
“I’ve played overseas for a very long time. Coming back to the A-League after a tournament that exceeded my World Cup expectations – that was the biggest part of my career so far, so to be able to stay there. After that, Australia was absolutely incredible.”
Yallop is Brisbane’s all-time leading goalscorer. She has represented the Matildas at four World Cups, and she says the most exciting thing about the recent outpouring of support is seeing the impact she has had on the young players vying for a place on the field .
“There is a lot more passion and competitiveness within the team, and you can feel that from external sources as well,” she said.
“I think this World Cup has really given (the young players) a chance to realize their dream and really motivated them to compete more, but also to focus more on it because it’s something they can achieve now… I think it really makes for a competitive league this year.
Kyah Simon is also returning to the Women’s A-League this year, having played for Tottenham Hotspur in England and PSV in the Netherlands in recent seasons.
“Playing for the Mariners is where it all started for me, so to go back and get back into the A-League is pretty special,” she said at a launch event for the upcoming season .
“This year has exceeded my wildest dreams as a footballer, seeing the whole country gripped by the Women’s World Cup, and I can’t wait to get in front of the fans this weekend.”
The stage is set, and if the numbers are to be believed, the fans are there and building.
But the challenge for the league will be to harness the World Cup buzz and maintain the hype throughout this season and beyond.
“You have to listen to both sides…football is a sport that has to be developed in the right way,” Williams said.
“The more you put into it as an organization, the more you’ll take out of the players, because they feel like they have that support. But also, you have to put in the effort as a player to make the fans feel supportive and excited by your team.
Tameka Yallop echoed Williams’ sentiments and stressed the importance of easy access for fans to stay invested in the sport.
“The main thing is exposure, and we’re definitely seeing that with free coverage, which is absolutely amazing,” she said.
“When I was young there was no Women’s A-League that I could watch, and now we have Matildas players playing in these matches. It’s an incredible opportunity for young people to get out, to watch and get an idea of something they could do when they grow up.
And with the Matildas’ Olympic qualifiers taking place later this month, the momentum shows no signs of slowing – especially as one of the matches had to be moved to a larger stadium to accommodate growing demand.
Lydia Williams took part in the first season of the W-League, as it was then called, in 2008.
She now hopes this new wave of support will translate into tangible growth for the Women’s A-League and a new era of success for the sport in general on home turf.
“Australian rules football now has this second wind to really support and grow the game.”
“Everyone has to make an effort… That’s kind of what we’ve seen lately, with the support for the national team, but then how these people are now supporting the local league. It’s up to us , as players, keep it up.”