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Matildas give Australia first magic moment of 2023 World Cup

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SYDNEY — There was no Sam Kerr moment a la Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics, as had been built up for weeks in the lead-up to the Matildas’ opening match of the Women’s World Cup, but nothing could dampen the spirits or quiet the noise from the thousands of Australia fans as they packed out Stadium Australia for the co-hosts’ 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland.

Not since Freeman’s 400m gold-medal run at the 2000 Games has Sydney or the nation been so captivated by a women’s sporting event, with 75,784 fans filing into the stadium, some in green but many more in gold, with no doubt millions more glued to television sets around the world.

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The opening night of the largest women’s sporting event ever lived up to the hype and came close to eclipsing anything that had been seen on Australian — and perhaps New Zealand — soil in close to a decade, with a visceral buzz of excitement surrounding the stadium more than two hours out from kick-off.

It all started days if not months earlier, though. On the night before the opener it was announced that more Matildas jerseys had been purchased in the lead-up to the tournament than Socceroos shirts throughout the entire men’s World Cup last year. Meanwhile, months ago, the original host ground, the Sydney Football Stadium, had to be swapped out for the much larger Stadium Australia with unprecedented demand seeing Australia’s opening-night tickets sold out within days of going on sale. It could even be said the hype started 1,118 days ago, when FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that Australia would jointly host the World Cup.

While it seemed like the day would never come, finally the moment arrived as the Matildas walked out to an adoring crowd, ready to get their home tournament off to a triumphant start despite the loss of their much-loved captain, Kerr, who was ruled out before kick-off with a calf injury.

The face of the Matildas, and perhaps the women’s game globally, Kerr’s name was on fans’ lips as they flocked to the stadium. Her mastery with the ball is artistry at work, while her acrobatic backflip has become synonymous with the 29-year-old and her goal-scoring feats. Forced to watch from the sideline, the captain rode every moment as her team withstood attack after attack in the final minutes to seal their 1-0 win.

While the loss of Kerr sent a ripple of unease through the previously confident home crowd, it wouldn’t dull any of the excitement or noise that came from the boisterous group. Filing into the stadium with drums beating and some cheers and chanting, the crowd was captivated by the small opening ceremony Welcome to Country before they got to their feet to greet the two teams on to the pitch. The only moment of silence throughout the evening came just before kick-off, when the two teams stood in silence around the centre circle to honour the lives lost in Thursday morning’s shooting in Auckland.

The Matildas appeared to take control of the match from the outset, pushing into the final third repeatedly, but the absence of Kerr saw them struggle to find polish and finish off any of their attacking raids. A tight gridlock heading into the second half, the crowd rode every wave, cheering, booing, and screaming at every opportunity.

Finally, in the 52nd minute, the stadium erupted, the pressure valve released, as stand-in captain Steph Catley coolly slotted what would prove to be the match-winning goal from the penalty spot. As Catley was swarmed by her teammates, the crowd were on their feet, the cheers deafeningly loud as fans started to believe history would be made with a Matildas World Cup win on home soil.

Forced to withstand a nervy final 20 minutes in which Ireland dominated possession and sent seemingly constant attacks toward Mackenzie Arnold’s goal, the Matildas’ defence refused to be breached, while the crowd roared in triumph as the final whistle blew.

Days, months, even three years, all led to that moment, and the Matildas walked off the pitch winners and the crowd went home euphoric, hope and belief of a historic World Cup run never higher as eyes now turn to Nigeria and beyond.

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