✦ Ok, so the world’s most popular sport isn’t Aussie made but the ninth edition of the FIFA Women’s Football World Cup most definitely will be!
Well, to be fair, it will be partially Aussie made as the hugely anticipated festival of football will be co-hosted with Tasman cousins New Zealand.
Regardless, much is expected of the tournament, with an expanded format and record crowds proving just how far the sport has progressed in recent times. While it is highly unlikely to ever surpass the well-established and loved core sports of AFL, cricket and rugby Down Under, football (or soccer as it is known to in local parlance) has come on leaps and bounds from a spectator and participant perspective in recent years, particularly in the women’s game.
Held from July 20 to August 20, it is the first time in the women’s game that the World Cup has been co-hosted. It will also be the first time either the women’s or the men’s World Cup is held across multiple confederations, as Australia is in the Asian Confederation, while New Zealand is in the Oceanian Confederation. Matches will be held at 10 stadiums in nine cities: five in Australia and four in New Zealand.
New Zealand kicks off proceedings against Norway at Eden Park in Auckland on July 20, with the final scheduled to take place at Sydney Olympic Stadium. In between those dates a total of 32 nations will be vying to make the final showdown at Homebush on August 20, an increase on the 24 teams that contested prior tournaments. The United States go into the tournament as defending champions and are widely tipped to retain their crown although reigning Olympic champions Canada, European champions England and fellow Euro sides Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden are also expected to challenge. South American champions Brazil and previous winners Japan could be outside bets.
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Quite simply it promises to be a fantastic occasion and you don’t have to be a football fan necessarily to enjoy the festival atmosphere that it will bring. Remember the atmosphere the 2000 Olympic Games generated? Ok, maybe it won’t reach those heights but it is the first time a tournament of such magnitude is being held on Aussie shores since that memorable showpiece and much is expected, with thousands of fans due to travel and support their teams and an estimated global TV audience of 2 billion predicted to tune in. FIFA has said that more than 1 million tickets have been allocated to fans around the world.
There is much hope surrounding the Australian women’s team, or The Matildas as they are affectionately known. Their opening game against the Republic of Ireland in Group B on July 20 had to be moved from the Sydney Football Stadium to Stadium Australia to accommodate the demand for tickets and the full allocation of 83,500 has already been snapped up. Impressive!
However, their group is a tough one. Labelled the “Group of Death”, a term often given to an especially difficult set of opponents, they will face not only number 24-world ranked Ireland but Canada and Nigeria, the most successful African women’s football nation.
That being said, the Matildas defeated England on April 14, ending their 30-game winning streak. To beat the current European Champions in their own back yard was no mean feat and will work wonders for moral going into the upcoming competition.
Matildas’ manager Tony Gustavsson is confident his team can deliver, promising “high octane” performances from the off, and is very much counting on the raucous local support to help lift his side.
“I can’t wait to see the interaction between the players and the fans,” the Swede said on the sidelines of the tournament draw in Auckland last October. “I love this team. I feel so privileged to be a small part of something much bigger than just 90 minutes of football,” he added, passionately.
Whether you’re a football/soccer fan or not, it will be a tournament well worth tuning into, with carnival atmospheres expected at many of the stadiums that offer a family-friendly environment for all ages and genders. FIFA estimate that the tournament will encourage more than 400,000 girls to take up the sport in Australia as the popularity of the game continues to surge. Who knows, if the Matildas waltz successfully enough on the pitch, maybe it can even convert some of the naysayers Down Under to become fans too!
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