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Australia dared to dream of World Cup glory, then it all slipped away

A long, emotional day for Australian soccer fans turned into an even longer trip home when severe delays stranded thousands on train platforms at Stadium Australia after the nation’s disappointing 3-1 loss to England in the World Cup semifinal.

For many, it was a fitting end to a draining night that saw Australia’s newest sporting superstars, the Matildas, fall frustratingly short of their first ever World Cup final.

After the match, a downcast Sam Kerr – Australia’s talismanic superstar and captain – told reporters she was lost for words.

“Unfortunately, this World Cup hasn’t gone as planned. I can’t blame it all on myself, but it’s hard not to feel bad right now,” she said.

Before the match kicked off, Australians had lifted their heroes onto their shoulders, but when the final score gave the game to England, they weren’t prepared to put them down.

“They’ve still got the hard work to do. And they will rally, and they will make us proud on Saturday,” she said, referring to Australia’s clash against Sweden in the third-place playoff.

“Rose gold,” added Harold Marshall. “That’s what we call it.”

After Wednesday’s game, politicians, sports stars and supporters lined up to commend the players.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said they had “shown incredible skill, ferocity and flair,” while Foreign Minister Penny Wong said they had “made Australia so proud.”

“You played some great football and along the way you have changed the country. We’re all behind you, always,” Wong posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Olympic runner Cathy Freeman, whose 400-meter dash for gold captivated the nation at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, also added words of encouragement.

“So incredibly proud of our girls! You gave it everything and inspired an entire nation! Hold your head up high and here’s to the future!” she posted on X.

So incredibly proud of our girls! You gave it everything and inspired an entire nation! Hold your head up high and here’s to the future! #matildas

— Cathy Freeman (@CathyFreeman) August 16, 2023

Close match

Emotions ran high throughout the evening as spectators perched on edge of their seats, ready to spring to their feet every time Australia had a shot at goal.

The sound of drums echoed and fans launched into songs whose lyrics were distributed online by the Matildas’ dedicated supporters’ group: “Come on, Matildas!”

Sam Kerr’s stunning kick – arguably the goal of the tournament – to equalize the score at one goal apiece shook the stadium as fans roared their approval.

But as England pulled ahead with a second goal and then a third, the singing lost some of its volume and exuberance, and some fans sat quietly down, despair etched on their foreheads.

As the time ran out on a dream comeback, the dejected players huddled before walking around the pitch to thank their supporters.

Kerr gave Chelsea teammate Millie Bright her jersey, which the Lionesses defender wore as she told reporters that the England team had “started to click.”

“We’re getting the ball in the back of the net, which is nice,” she added.

The long ride home

Outside the stadium, the Australian flags that had been held aloft earlier in the night were wrapped around shoulders for warmth as fans attempted to go home.

Normally, trains run frequently to the city center, but hours after the match, thousands were left stranded in long queues on the platform after officials said a nearby station was damaged by vandalism. Some people gave up and started walking.

Jennie Gannaway, 72, and her son, Christopher, 34, had left their home in Newcastle on the New South Wales coast at 10 a.m. local time on Wednesday to take the 2.5-hour train ride to Sydney for the game.

They had planned to be home by about midnight, but as the clock ticked into Thursday, they were still standing with others on the platform near the stadium, phoning home to warn family they’d be late. At best, they hoped to be home by 4 a.m.

The mother and son have completed the same journey many times to see the Matildas play in Sydney, and though her back ached after the 14-hour day, Gannaway had no regrets.

Fan Mariela Pocklington said, win or lose, this Women’s World Cup had shown the joys of soccer to new audiences and she expects more girls will sign up to play the Beautiful Game.

“The effect after the Lionesses won the Euros was massive. They had a lot of girls that joined. Here will be the same,” she predicted.

The question remains if England can add another trophy to the cabinet and complete a historic major tournament double when they meet Spain in the final on Sunday.

The day before, the Matildas will look to salve the pain somewhat and take on Sweden for third place.

Australian defender Steph Catley told reporters Wednesday the team was determined to win.

“We’ve gone home from the Olympics empty handed. We’re not going to be doing that this time,” said Catley.

“We’re going to bounce back, we’re going get ourselves right and turn up for that game and give everything we have, like we always do.”

It’s a sentiment that epitomizes this Australia side and one which – win or lose on Saturday – will undoubtedly make this nation proud.

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