By the time it was over, the overriding feeling at the Brisbane Stadium was not so much euphoria or ecstasy or relief but dizziness. Not from the heights that Australia has reached in its home World Cup, beating France to reach a first semifinal, but from the winding, coiling, nauseating road it took to get there.
The game itself was fraught enough, the goal-less stalemate of the score line belying more than two hours in which the balance of power hopped back and forth: France started well, composed and inventive, only for Australia to wrestle control. It was not an evening defined by patterns of play so much as storm surges, and the ability to withstand them.
The penalty shootout that decided it, though, was something else entirely. France missed its first kick, with Australia goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold denying Selma Bacha. Solène Durand, the substitute goalkeeper brought on by France as a penalty specialist — or, who knows, perhaps just a piece of psychological warfare — saved a shot from Steph Catley.
Ève Périsset, introduced specifically to take a penalty, missed France’s fifth; Arnold, the goalkeeper, stepped up to win it. She stepped up confidently. Durand did not move. The crowd started to celebrate. Her teammates accelerated toward her. Her attempt struck the right post. Australia would have to wait.
Each team had taken eight penalties by the time Arnold saved another, this time from Kenza Dali. The goalkeeper had, though, stepped forward too soon. It had to be taken again. Dali chose the same side of the goal, a double bluff. Arnold called it. She saved it again. Clare Hunt stepped up to win it for Australia. By that stage, it was hardly even a surprise that she could not convert.
Instead, it would be Cortnee Vine who decided it. Vicki Bècho was the last French outfield player set to take a penalty; after her, Durand would have had to take her turn. But Bècho struck the post, and with a nation watching, Vine kept her composure, and Australia had survived, 7-6, in the shootout. The thunderclap that followed was tinged with just a hint of desperation, the energy ever-so-slightly frantic.
Australia has, over these last three weeks, embraced this team in a way that has been simultaneously predictable — this is an enormous sporting nation, one that draws a considerable proportion of its identity from its prowess in the various sports it takes to heart — and wholly surprising to those who have witnessed soccer’s struggles for acceptance.
It is not just that the stadiums have been full: The World Cup is an event, a showpiece, a good day out, and almost every country on the planet is united in enjoying the sensation of being part of a major event. It is that the streets are full of green-and-gold, that the newspapers have images of the Matildas front and center, that it is the primary topic of discussion.
The fact Australia’s progress has continued will only exacerbate that, of course, now that the country is only two games from a world championship. It is the nature of it, though, that is perhaps the best advertisement for soccer’s curious charms.
For three hours, nobody in the Brisbane Stadium could tear their eyes away, nobody could take anything for granted. As they walked away, they would have felt not only delighted and proud but nauseous and drained, too, their nerves frayed and torn by what they had been through. And that, after all, is the point of sport. It is what will draw them back in four days, when a semifinal, and the chance to live it all again, hovers on the horizon.