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BEYOND LOCAL: Matildas fans salute Australia's run to the Women's World Cup semifinals

Attendance for the first 32-team Women's World Cup has shattered records, with FIFA reporting a combined 1.85 million attendance for the first 62 games at an average 29,888 across 10 venues in Australia and New Zealand
Australia's Sam Kerr and Australia's goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold react after the Women's World Cup semifinal soccer match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

SYDNEY (AP) — Sam Kerr looked up at the Stadium Australia crowd for the last time at this Women's World Cup, and it just compounded the gnawing disappointment that she and her Matildas had fallen one game before the final.

In what has been an immense shift in the Australian public’s sporting consciousness, nine out of 10 people who watched commercial television on Wednesday night tuned in to see the national women’s soccer team’s 3-1 loss to England in the semifinals.

That figure — an audience reach of 11.5 million and an average audience of 7.13 million reported by the free-to-air host broadcaster — excludes paid streaming, and those who gathered at dedicated fan zones, where some over-exuberant revelers let off flares, and in pubs and clubs around the country.

“We’ve kind of captured the nation,” a visibly dejected Kerr said after walking off the pitch. “The support we’ve had has been amazing and we’ll do everything we can on the weekend to get them a third place.”

The 29-year-old Kerr has won the golden boot for leading scorer in leagues in Australia, the United States and England, where she's a star for the champion Chelsea team. But her World Cup was heavily curtailed by an injury sustained on the eve of the Matildas' opening game on July 20.

Her left calf muscle become a topic of daily news Down Under, even after she returned as a second-half substitute in the dramatic penalty shootout win over France in the quarterfinals and, finally, started a game for the first time in the semifinal.

She was chopped down by defenders twice in the opening 10 minutes and had a relatively subdued first half, but brought the game to life with her stunning solo goal in the 63rd minute that leveled the score at 1-1 and renewed hope for the Matildas.

“We just feel really proud that they’ve got behind us and we’ve changed the way women’s football is seen in Australia,” Kerr added. “It’s been amazing. A big thank you.”

Kerr, who converted to soccer from Aussie rules as a teenager because she was no longer allowed to play in boys leagues, has seen a phenomenal transformation in the game since she made her international debut in 2009.

At age 15, she went on as a late substitute in a 5-1 loss to Italy at Canberra, Australia's capital, where a crowd of 2,916 would never have believed the evolution that has occurred. She didn't even give her parents much notice that she'd been selected.

In July and August of 2023, she's had the nation's full attention.

Morning news bulletins on Thursday reported the “heartbreak” for the Matildas, and daily newspapers across the country once again heavily featured the women’s national team. A high-profile sports store in downtown Sydney still had the Matildas jerseys — hard to attain in recent weeks — on display at full price. There'll be no discounting this team for a while.

The domestic TV audience reported for the quarterfinal win was the biggest in Australia for any event since the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The semifinal broadcast was even bigger — significantly larger than the biggest men's games in the Aussie rules Australian Football League and the National Rugby League that so frequently pull the biggest crowds.

It’s unlikely Australia's Saturday bronze playoff against Sweden at Brisbane will match the TV audience of the semifinal, but it'll be a decent farewell. England plays Spain on Sunday in the final at Sydney.

Attendance for the first 32-team Women's World Cup has shattered records, with FIFA reporting a combined 1.85 million attendance for the first 62 games at an average 29,888 across 10 venues in Australia and New Zealand. That's 5,000 more than the historical average for the tournament.

The number of news pages devoted to the Matildas was unprecedented for women’s sport and for soccer in Australia, too. And this is home to the long-time No. 1 women’s cricket team — which pulled a crowd exceeding 86,000 for a game against India in 2020 — and world champions in netball.

The fact that an entire nation almost expected the Matildas to win the title says a lot about the pressure Kerr and her 10th-ranked team faced on home soil.

Australia had lost all three previous quarterfinals it reached at the Women’s World Cup. Only one host, the United States, had ever won a quarterfinal match at the Women’s World Cup.

So reaching the semifinals had the feel of a final. Tears and emotions poured out of long-time supporters and millions of more recent fans after that dramatic penalty shootout win over France last weekend.

Police reported it was vandals who caused a disruption to the train line from Stadium Australia in Sydney's western suburbs back to the city, causing delays of more than 1 1/2 hours Wednesday for some of the 75,000 people who attended the semifinal. For some, it just prolonged the pain.

For others, it's already time to look to the future.

Matildas midfielder Alex Chidiac said the team had created “a legacy that’s going to live on and it obviously has inspired so many people.”

“After the tournament, we’ll get all that perspective and this will be a lot easier to swallow," she said of the loss. "Obviously right now, it’s still very fresh. But I think overall (a) massive achievement. . . . we’ve got a whole bunch of passionate fans now, which is cool.”

Mary Fowler, a 20-year-old emerging star for Manchester City who had a breakthrough tournament for Australia, will likely be part of that legacy.

“It’s always really nice, just watching videos and people around the country giving us some love," she said. "It’s been an unbelievable tournament in that sense."


AP World Cup coverage:

John Pye, The Associated Press