It was meant to end on a high. One final box to tick to cap off the Matildas’ record-breaking World Cup campaign on home soil. But from the first whistle of their third-place playoff game against Sweden it looked unlikely to happen. A first-half penalty by Fridolina Rolfö and a second-half cracker from captain Kosovare Asllani decisively put Australia in fourth place at this tournament. By no means a failure, although it would have felt like that to the players.
It started as a classy display of possession football by Sweden but progressively descended into chaos as the first half progressed. Sweden dominated early and a masterclass from Asllani and Stina Blackstenius brought Mackenzie Arnold into action within a minute of play. Veteran defender Clare Polkinghorne, in the starting XI due to Alanna Kennedy’s concussion-enforced absence, lunged with all her weight towards Asllani who was able to easily sidestep her and find Blackstenius in space.
The defensive error was something you may forgive from a World Cup debutant, not from the Matildas’ most-capped player. But Polkinghorne, like the rest of Tony Gustavsson’s substitutes, had not played many minutes before the semi-final defeat to England and it showed. Some of those players – Alex Chidiac and Courtney Nevin – did eventually get some time on the pitch, and not just for one minute of pointless running, but it was not enough to counter the clinical performance from Sweden.
In those opening minutes, Gustavsson could be seen pacing the perimeter of his technical area, earpiece in, green and gold scarf around his neck to reassure that tonight any allegiance to his home country had been buried down deep. Sweden, in their home kit of yellow and blue, squandered their chances in that early period of dominance, and were not able to find a final touch or panicked under pressure.
Australia seemed to properly enter the game from the 18-minute mark, when Sam Kerr laid the ball off to Caitlin Foord, only for her cross to go over the head of Mary Fowler in the six-yard box. Hayley Raso had Australia’s best chance of the half after a cross from Carpenter landed at her feet on the right of the penalty area but the midfielder sent her shot straight to Zećira Mušović.
The packed Brisbane Stadium was bursting with tension at these promising chances but then, in an instant, it deflated. A header from Elin Rubensson was stopped by the crossbar but it was the movement just seconds before that would ultimately prove costly. As Blackstenius charged into the area Clare Hunt lost her footing and ever so slightly clipped the Swede’s heel, sending them both to the ground. VAR sent the referee, Cheryl Foster of Wales, to the screen and Rolfö stepped up to dispatch her kick into the bottom right corner of the net. Hunt’s foul was replayed on the screens inside the stadium and the nearly 50,000-strong crowd dutifully booed, then went quiet.
From that point tempers flared. First it was Foord alerting the referee to her displeasure about a free-kick decision and giving Mušović a little nudge when she decided to get involved. Then, a late ankle tap from Katrina Gorry secured the midfielder a yellow card. And with just minutes remaining in the half, Gorry and Asllani engaged in some push and shove. The half closed with a golf ball-sized lump bulging next to Foord’s right eye after she clattered into Asllani.
When she returned to the field for the second half the bump and bruise were hidden under bandages, and her battered look showed outwardly what her teammates must have been feeling internally. Gustavsson finally went to his bench at the 60-minute mark, bringing on quarter-final penalty shootout hero Cortnee Vine for Raso and Emily van Egmond for Gorry. He might have been aiming for an injection of energy and de-escalation of frustrations but the substitutes barely got a look in before a Fowler fumble set Asllani and Blackstenius loose on the counterattack. After the initial ball from Asllani, Blackstenius ran down the centre before cutting it back to her captain who got her laces behind her shot to the right of Arnold and into the back of the net.
Alex Chidiac and Courtney Nevin were next to enter the fray, the latter for her first World Cup appearance. Their legs may have been fresher but it didn’t matter when combined with their exhausted teammates and against a Swedish team who did not look like they had also just played six games. To add insult to Kerr’s existing calf injury, the captain caught her other leg in tackle with her former Chelsea teammate Magda Eriksson. Play continued around her, Fowler swung and missed at a cross in the box, and eventually the play was called to a halt. Kerr trudged to the sideline before reappearing looking more than a little cautious.
The captain’s pain was symbolic of a deflated and weary Matildas side, limping to the finish line but not able to pick up the consolation prize. They had their eyes on that bronze medal as soon as they left the pitch after their semi-final defeat to England on Wednesday. It may not have been their night but no one could think Australia has truly been left empty-handed with a fourth-place finish. The mark that the Matildas’ World Cup performance has left on women’s football, and the nation as a whole, is profound. Whether that mark fades or is etched deeper into Australia’s consciousness is yet to be seen. It no longer depends on the 23 women who have inspired a country with their skill and heart, but rather on the millions of others who have been swept up this World Cup fever.