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The Matildas’ moment: Each penalty had its own story to tell


BRISBANE, Australia — Cortnee Vine is instantly swamped by her teammates. Their reactions to her historic penalty in Australia‘s 7-6 shootout win over France will be printed across the front pages of newspapers, the covers of books, plastered on walls and billboards, and Instagram stories for the rest of eternity.

For the first time ever, Australia will take part in a World Cup semifinal. The Matildas will contest for a medal at the Women’s World Cup and become the first host nation to make it beyond the quarterfinals since the United States in 2003.

Disbelief and joy and relief were everywhere on Saturday night. From inside Brisbane Stadium, of course, to the fan festivals that had been running across the country all tournament. From inside the pubs and lounge rooms of Australia, to those huddled arounds phones at weddings and concerts and on public transport. Even those in the air and at other sports were able to watch and share in this moment that no one will soon forget.

And those scriptwriters were back at it again with their scarcely believable narratives, as if the sense of occasion needed to be added to.

A World Cup quarterfinal decided in this fashion, by the extreme agony and ecstasy tool that is a penalty shootout, means the 120 minutes of football that preceded it become a blur. There are only hazy flashes of half-remembered chances and a vague recollection of what actually happened.

Conveniently, nothing summed up the 120 minutes of play quite like the penalty shootout itself. Spot kicks don’t often tell the story of a match, but this time they did.

Pregame, it was widely accepted that France and the Matildas matched up well, from their identical formations to their similar styles of play. A contest that even could only go one of two ways: the teams cancelled each other out, turning the game to a grind, or the game would become open and free-flowing. It started as the former, with the teams exchanging periods of dominance. It became latter as legs tired. Chances were there, and both sides could have won in regulation. Ditto extra time.

It’s not often that it feels like a game needs penalties to truly be able to split two teams, but Saturday felt like one of them. The thing about penalties is that, in the moment, you can’t do anything. All you can do is watch.

What unfolded was the longest penalty shootout in World Cup history, men’s or women’s. It took 20 spot kicks to decide the winner. It stretched proceedings into a third hour — a rarity in football. For every person watching that match, the shootout felt like its own year. But it was longest for Vine, Australia’s 10th penalty taker. Kick number 20.

In the leadup to the tournament, Vine spoke of her “imposter syndrome” at being selected. After starting the first two matches, she was moved to the bench and spoke during the week of only wanting to play a role for the team, whatever that role looked like, and doing what the team needed.

“I did it. I didn’t think I would have to do it,” she laughed post-game. “I didn’t think it was going get to the 10th penalty taker and again, like I said, I was willing to do whatever the team wanted me to do and [Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson] picked me as 10th.

“So I stood up.”

In her debut World Cup, with 49,461 fans in the stands, their cheers reaching 123.8 decibels, Vine’s brow was furrowed with determination as she stood on the edge of immediate legend status in Australian football.

“I felt I was in a whirlwind, I didn’t know what was going on and I was like: ‘What just happened?'” Vine said.

She went on to credit Matildas goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold for taking the pressure off her. And while Vine wasn’t accurate when she said that Arnold saved the previous penalty — Vicki Bècho hit the post after sending Arnold the wrong way — it speaks volumes to the positive psychology and body language coming off the goalkeeper. In Vine’s mind, Arnold had done the hard work, and so she would return the favour and get the job done.

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That brings us to Arnold.

Her growth over the last year, from third-choice keeper to starting World Cup shot-stopper, has been a journey of self-belief. And this shootout provided more proof, if anyone still needed any. Throughout the 120 minutes she was once again a calm presence down back, able to clean up messes and make routine saves with a commanding authority.

When it came to penalties there were no worries or doubts about what she could do in a shootout.

“We all know how good she is at penalties. That’s always been her thing. So I think when we went into this, I was like: ‘We’re good. Mac is gonna save probably a lot of them,'” stand-in Matildas skipper Steph Catley said of her keeper.

And while Arnold did make saves, it was her response to setbacks which were more telling. The script was set perfectly for her to take the winning penalty after saving Eve Perisset‘s effort, five kicks in.

“It was almost like it was written in the stars,” was the way Gustavsson described it post-match. “It’s meant to be, that’s how you feel, and then she hits the post, right?”

It was a moment which had so much riding on it. But Arnold couldn’t dwell. She had to immediately return to her line and continue doing her job.

“The girls are singing my praises but I’m seriously so proud of each and every one of them,” Arnold said. “Especially after I missed the penalty as well and seeing them rally around me like they did and to keep me in the game. I’m so thankful for them.”

There was no denying Arnold had stayed in the game when she came up big to stop Kenza Dali‘s penalty, you could feel her guttural roar just by looking at her. But VAR deemed the Matildas keeper had stepped off her line and the penalty needed to be retaken. It was another moment where the response would have the power to influence the rest of the shootout.

“It’s a little bit of a mind game, to be honest, whether she’s gonna go the same way or change it up. But I back myself, and thankfully, I got the same again,” Arnold said.

The keeper looked at the ref, did a thumbs up waiting for confirmation of the second save, and then raised her hands above her head. Brisbane Stadium lost its mind.

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The Brisbane crowd was a presence in itself during the game, fully buying in to the occasion and what was required of them. A rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda during the Welcome to Country in the pre-match ceremonies set the tone. The fans made sure to cheer every Matildas save and chance, Bronx cheer French mistakes, and boo with incredulity at real and perceived slights on the Australians from the referee. Then, if the stadium had a roof, it would have been lifted off at the 55-minute mark, with Sam Kerr‘s introduction.

To say Kerr’s World Cup hadn’t gone to plan so far would be a bit of an understatement. Before Saturday night, the talisman of not just the Matildas but the World Cup as a whole, had played a grand total of 10 minutes plus injury time all tournament. It felt cruel and unusual that Kerr wasn’t getting to participate on the pitch, but the Matildas had proved they could win without her. That ,in turn, made being able to use her off the bench all the more powerful.

When the game went to penalties, it felt right that Kerr was on the pitch. But the elephant in the room needed to be addressed.

Everyone was thinking it, including Kerr. Visions of her last World Cup penalty kick were running on a loop in people’s minds: the ball travelling up into the clear night sky in Nice in 2019 and the Matildas crashing out of the tournament in the round of 16.

On that night, only one of Kerr’s teammates actually converted their penalty. But she had an expectation on her unlike anyone else at the time and that has only grown in the years since. The difference now is that she has grown into that pressure.

As Kerr walked up to the spot in Brisbane, she burned a hole into the painted-on 12-yard circle with her stare. She rarely looked up as France keeper Solène Durand walked to her line slowly. Her mind was back in Nice.

“The only pen I was thinking about when I stepped up is the last World Cup when I missed,” Kerr said.

“Last World Cup when I missed, I probably just tried to do something I wasn’t used to. This time was all about routine and all about focus and just doing what I know I’m good at.”

As the whistle went Kerr looked at the ball, snuck a glance at the goal, and ran up, striking the ball low and hard beyond the keeper to score. A fist bump, a beat of the chest, a demon exorcised.

Kerr’s penalty, in conjunction with a major tournament penalty shootout win, felt like the true closing of a chapter. Overcoming adversity in all its form was a common theme. .

Katrina Gorry has done a mountain of work as the metronome in the middle of the park for the Matildas. At times, the 31-year-old is inescapable to opponents: constructing an opportunity, losing the ball, and tracking back to recover it all within the same minute. Her penalty was fueled by emotion, a specific example of a wider trend throughout the team.

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Gorry’s penalty was struck into the side netting, evading Durand who guessed the right way. She kissed her wrist and pointed to the sky, eyes already glassy. She then did a rocking the baby celebration for her daughter, Harper. Her lips went into a thin line, as it does when holding back tears and returned to her teammates. It wasn’t until after the match that Gorry revealed that her initial celebration was for her fiancee’s father, who passed away a couple of days prior. While time doesn’t feel real at a World Cup and life feels like it pauses, it doesn’t. For Gorry to be a world away from her family, experiencing a professional high and personal low simultaneously is a credit to her as a person and as a player.

And there were more stories still. Mary Fowler‘s breakout tournament continued with a performance in the 120 minutes that should’ve included goals. Her penalty — calm, assured, thumping — spoke to all of her best qualities, what she still has to give, and what fans can expect from this 20-year-old in the years to come.

“I just don’t know how the players are doing it in this atmosphere,” the commentator mused on the world feed.

But the Matildas have shown all tournament that all of these emotions and pressure — be it personal or expectations from a nation — are a driving force, rather than a weight to be lugged around. All of their talk of belief and improvement and growth has been backed up by action. Luck has fallen their way, but they’ve made their own luck in turn.

It is a mentality shift that may well be one of the defining traits and lasting achievements of the Gustavsson era. Getting it done, even in dramatic fashion, means the story continues. Catley summarised it perfectly in the afterglow of Saturday’s epic triumph: “[It’s] how we are as a team at the moment, we just believe. We keep fighting no matter what happens: whether it’s VAR, a re-take, penalties, misses, goals, saves … whatever it is, we never stop believing that we’re going to win.”





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