Australian Women’s Soccer Team the Matildas Are on the Brink of Making History

For as long as the team has existed, the Matildas have stood up against sexist discrimination and exploitation. Now they’re within striking distance of the Women’s World Cup.

Australian players celebrate their victory in the penalty shoot during the FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match between Australia and France at Brisbane Stadium on August 12, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Elsa - FIFA / FIFA via Getty Images)

In late July, the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off as Australia’s team, the Matildas, faced off against Ireland. In the days leading up to the match, there were only hints in Sydney’s central business district that a major international sporting event was about to take place. The media had barely promoted the competition, and as one commentator described it, there was “barely a lick of excitement in the air.” It was emblematic of the neglect of women’s sports.

Just three weeks later, the Matildas have transformed Australia’s sports landscape sensationally with their August 12 quarterfinal win against France.

Now, on the eve of the Matildas’ August 16 semifinal against England, there’s an electricity in the air that can only be generated by an international football tournament. Thanks to scintillating performances from the likes of Mary Fowler, Hayley Raso, and Mackenzie Arnold, women’s football has rocketed from the periphery to the center.

Indeed, if the Matildas win, there’s a real chance that we’ll all get a day off work in their honor. It will be a historic victory for women’s sport and emblematic of the Matildas’ skill, commitment to solidarity, and their outspoken stand against sexism.

The Most-Viewed TV Event Since Cathy Freeman’s Win in 2000

Football has never really been an accepted part of the Australian sporting landscape. Historically, it struggled to compete with Australian rules football and rugby. This was partly because of establishment racism that regarded football as a sport reserved for European migrants.

It was also because football just doesn’t gel with the ultra-macho tradition of running full speed into another player, knocking them down, and calling them soft if they don’t get up and hit you back. With a few honorable exceptions, the men’s game hasn’t challenged these regressive attitudes but has instead accommodated them.

Robbie Slater — a former player for the Australian men’s team, the Socceroos, and now a Fox Sports pundit — is a case in point. In 2022, Matildas star forward Sam Kerr broke Socceroo Tim Cahill’s record for most goals scored by an Australian player in the international competition. Slater penned an article in the Daily Telegraph arguing that because she’s a Matilda, not a Socceroo, Kerr’s achievement is “not equal,” as if a goal in women’s football is literally worth less than a man’s.

Slater’s sexism isn’t an aberration. Instead, it reflects a misogynist status quo maintained both locally and at the highest levels of international football.

In the Matildas’ early years, players had to do their own laundry and hand out flyers to attract audiences. Indeed, the women’s game was so marginalized that in 2015, the team’s contracts — valued around the poverty line, at AU$22,000 — had lapsed, leaving players unpaid and without medical insurance. The Matildas struck for two months to save their footballing careers and to demand collective agreements that gave them pay parity with the men’s team, a demand they finally won in 2019.

The Matildas have also brought their commitment to solidarity and against sexism to the world stage. In a video produced by their union, Professional Footballers Australia, players recount previous battles against FIFA, like one in 2015, when the league tried to force them to play on fields with fake grass.

Extending their call for solidarity to the 736 footballers competing in the Women’s World Cup, midfielder Tameka Yallop explains that “collective bargaining has allowed us to ensure we now get the same conditions as the Socceroos.” As she points out, there is “one exception — FIFA will still only offer women one quarter as much prize money as men for the same achievement.”

It’s this kind of discriminatory reality that underpins attitudes like Robbie Slater’s. And it’s the Matildas’ commitment to standing together and speaking up that explains their popularity.

Indeed, August 12 proved that the Matildas have the overwhelming weight of popular support on their side. Australian audiences packed Federation Square, stadiums, and local pubs to capacity to watch the match, while millions more watched at home or on their smartphones. With an estimated 4.17 million viewers across Australia, the quarterfinal against France was the most watched TV event in Australian since Cathy Freeman won the four-hundred-meter run in the 2000 Olympics.

We Want That Public Holiday

The world game is said to unite people across otherwise seemingly insurmountable boundaries. The Matildas success has proven this with just about everyone cheering them on. Yet when it comes to the question of creating a public holiday to celebrate a Matildas World Cup victory, class divisions are as clear as day.

Small-business owners in particular have gone crazy at the prospect, reminding us that “holidays cost us money,” either because work stops, or because employers are required to pay workers penalty rates for working on the holiday. Paul Zahra, chief executive of the Australian Retailers Association, has complained that Australia already has a number of sports-based public holidays, and that one more will leave businesses out of pocket.

The Coalition parties have rushed to their side, despite the fact that on Saturday, disgraced former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce managed to watch the wrong game. While millions around the country watched the Matildas win against France, Joyce found himself watching a replay of a friendly match they played in July by accident. Meanwhile, in a move sure to boost his party’s flagging popularity among women, Liberal leader Peter Dutton has labeled the demand for a holiday a “stunt” and an “ego trip” that could cost up to $2 billion.

The business argument against a public holiday is more than a little hypocritical. Since penalty rates were reduced in 2017, businesses have enjoyed significant reductions in their public holiday wage bills. And the Matildas have boosted the national economy by at least $7.6 billion, which will mainly go to retail and travel.

At any rate, we’re in a cost-of-living crisis. Where are these frugal heroes when workers are hit with rising utilities and shopping bills, or rising rents and mortgage repayments?

In contrast, the Labor Party has picked up the demand for a public holiday — but only with copious apologies, caveats, and appeals to the plight of the business owner. For example, New South Wales premier Chris Minns has pushed for a public holiday and parade — but not the day after the World Cup, because that’d be too disruptive. And not if the Matildas lose, because it wouldn’t be worth commending the team’s efforts if they fall just short.

Other Labor premiers have been even more hesitant to commit. The South Australian government has suggested that the state may not follow New South Wales’s lead in granting a public holiday but will instead boost funding for grassroots women’s sports by $18 million. Victorian and Queensland Labor premiers Daniel Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk have taken a more cautious approach, claiming that they don’t want to jinx the Matildas. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, you can’t help but think that they just don’t want to promise workers a day off.

Fortunately, however, it’s a moot point. Australia’s strong federal system will ensure that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese — who has backed the holiday push — will whip his state colleagues into shape and get us that holiday.

It does raise a question, however: If it’s so easy to override the states, why does he refuse to force them to put a cap on rent increases?

More Than a Holiday!

If the Matildas win, we should get a public holiday, and we should boost funding for women’s sports. Every politician and business owner who disagrees is a killjoy and a scoundrel. And more important, after we’ve gone mental celebrating, we should go take stock of the monumental achievement that’s happening before our eyes.

The Matildas’ success hasn’t been guaranteed. They are national heroes, and they’re heroes who understand that workers need to stand strong together against discrimination and exploitation at the hands of their bosses. The Matildas are strikers on and off the field, and outspoken opponents of sexism. They’re the antithesis of the machismo and conservatism that has plagued Australian sports, and with every victory, they challenge another establishment prejudice.

Tonight, the ’Tillies face off against our old rival England. And although it is just another opponent, the English team does happen to enjoy the support of Australia’s head of state, King Charles III. Having won the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022, the Lionesses are the only national team from England to win a major international trophy since the men’s team won way back when, in 1966.

Led by the likes of Manchester City’s Chloe Kelly, they’ll be a tough ask to be beat. It’s why former footballer Craig Foster is entirely right to point out that a Matildas win against England will speak to the growing need for an Australian republic.

Whoever wins tomorrow will play Spain, whose players went on strike against their coach last year, calling for his resignation. The Royal Spanish Football Federation backed the coach, and now the players refuse to celebrate with him. That’s why, if the Matildas lose, the correct internationalist position for Australian socialists is to support Spain.