By the time it was over — three frazzling, agonizing, exhausting hours later — the feeling around the Brisbane Stadium was not so much delight or euphoria or even relief, but a sort of dizziness. Not vertigo from the heights that Australia have now ascended, but something closer to nausea, from the winding, coiling road that took the host nation up into the clouds.

This World Cup has had no shortage of drama: late twists and surprise endings and a pleasing trace of unbridled chaos. Australia’s eventual win against France on Saturday maintained that proud tradition.

The World Cup had also already had at least one penalty shootout that tested the bounds of realism. On that count, Australia might have pushed the microscopic elimination of the United States into second place. The raw facts of the matter are that the host eventually triumphed, 7-6, when the substitute Cortnee Vine unfussily converted the last of 21 penalties to send Brisbane — and the rest of the country — into raptures at the prospect of Australia’s first World Cup semifinal, against England on Wednesday.

In this case, it is fair to say, the facts require a little explanation.

Over the course of the past three weeks, the progress of the Matildas has consumed Australia. Tony Gustavsson’s team is on the front cover of every newspaper. The faces of his players beam out from television ads and billboards and news bulletins. The fitness or otherwise of Sam Kerr has become a national obsession.

The team’s games have become must-see television, setting various audience records, snatching high watermarks away from the country’s more traditional, more entrenched ball sports, Australian rules football and rugby.

Hours before kickoff, Brisbane was filled with fans decked out in Australian green-and-gold: jerseys and commemorative T-shirts, mostly, but a few fans had needed to improvise.

One man wore a bright, canary yellow suit, a possession that raises more questions than it answers. In the bars of Lang Park, the area immediately around the stadium, there were two people wearing a surprising — some might say excessive — amount of pineapple-themed apparel. Nobody seemed to mind. The color scheme was on the right lines.

Much of that, of course, can be attributed to fairly universal traits. Australia is very much a sporting nation, well used to expressing its identity through its on-field prowess. It is, like everywhere else, the sort of place that enjoys a major event, a chance to let its hair down, to host a party for the rest of the world to watch.

The effect, though, has been multiplied by how compelling a story the Matildas have become. Kerr, the country’s great star, injured her calf on the eve of the first game and has been racing to find some semblance of fitness in time to feature — even in a reduced role — in some way in the tournament.

The team, its confidence seemingly diminished in Kerr’s absence, lost to Nigeria in its second game, and for a moment it appeared as if the jamboree for which it had spent three years preparing would be the most disheartening sort of anticlimax. A rousing victory against Canada averted that fate; a win against Denmark in the round of 16 ensured it would survive until the last week of the tournament, at least.

But still Australia remains absolutely determined to wring every last vestige of emotional energy from its fans. Its meeting with France was enthralling and intriguing, but it was also tense and fraught at all times, a game played exclusively on the narrowest of edges. Twice, early on, the French defender Maëlle Lakrar might have deflated a nation. Twice, Australia survived, Gustavsson’s players gritting their teeth and clenching their fists until they could turn the tide.

It was less a game of patterns and pressure and more one of surges. When Australia’s came, Mary Fowler was at its heart. She might have scored three times against France, maybe more, but was denied twice by the reflexes and the reactions of Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, the French goalkeeper, and once — most spectacularly — by the quick thinking of defender Élisa De Almeida, who darted back to deny Fowler an open, certain goal.

“I’d like to watch it back to see what the hell I was doing,” said Fowler, with rather more self-criticism than was strictly warranted.

The introduction of Kerr, after less than an hour, was greeted as if it was the decisive act. Kerr’s arrival can, these days, be sensed before it is seen: There is a roar as she goes out to warm up, another when she returns to the substitutes’ bench, and a third as she prepares herself to enter the field. She had been on for no more than 30 seconds when she created a chance for Hayley Raso; this, the stadium had decided, was when it all came together.

Maybe that would have been too simple. France not only held on, but wrested control. An Australian own goal was ruled out for a push by Wendie Renard before Australia’s Steph Catley had to clear one effort from close to, if not quite on, her own goal line. By the time penalties loomed, the crowd was greeting simple saves by Mackenzie Arnold with a fervor usually reserved for goals. At the other end, Australian corners inspired a noise that seemed to shake the foundations of the stadium.

Even by those standards, though, the penalty shootout was something else entirely. Arnold called it a “roller coaster.” Vine went with “whirlwind.”

Certainly, it ticked almost every box: a goalkeeper introduced specifically for the shootout, to no small effect; a substitute brought on for the same purpose who missed, as substitutes brought on just to take penalties seem to do with alarming frequency; a goalkeeper who took what might have been the winning penalty, but missed; a player who took her attempt twice, and failed to score both times.

Australia had two chances to win it, and blew them both, before Vine stepped up and finally sent the stadium — and the country — into raptures. As she had walked to the penalty spot, she said, she had not been able to hear any noise from the crowd. When she scored, it all rushed in, a thunderclap tinged with just a hint of desperation, the energy ever-so-slightly frantic.

For the players, the scale of their achievement felt somehow indistinct, impossible, as if they cannot see quite how far they have climbed. Their focus, instead, is on what is ahead. “The vision has always been to go the whole way,” Caitlin Foord said. “I still believe we are only just getting started.”

Quite whether the country has the emotional energy for that remains to be seen. Three hours after this game began, almost 50,000 people streamed away from the Brisbane Stadium, delighted and proud, of course, but nauseous and drained. Making the semifinals of a World Cup is a test of nerve, as much as anything, for the players and for the fans. It is an exquisite sort of agony. Australia will tune in for more of it in four days time, and it cannot wait.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *