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Where EAST meets the Northwest

AWESOME AUSSIES. Australia’s Sam Kerr takes a shot during the Women’s World Cup Round of 16 soccer match between Australia and Denmark at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia. Kerr and Team Australia captured the attention of their nation during the 2023 Women’s World Cup this summer. "The support we’ve had has been amazing," Kerr said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

From The Asian Reporter, V33, #9 (September 4, 2023), pages 12 & 17.

A nation of new Matildas fans salutes Australia’s run to the Women’s World Cup semifinals

By John Pye

The Associated Press

SYDNEY — Sam Kerr looked up at the Stadium Australia crowd for the last time at this Women’s World Cup, and it just compounded the gnawing disappointment that she and her Matildas had fallen one game before the final.

In what has been an immense shift in the Australian public’s sporting consciousness, nine out of 10 people who watched commercial television that night tuned in to see the national women’s soccer team’s 1-3 loss to England in the semifinals.

That figure — an audience reach of 11.5 million and an average audience of 7.13 million reported by the free-to-air host broadcaster — excluded paid streaming, and those who gathered at dedicated fan zones, where some over-exuberant revellers let off flares, and in pubs and clubs around the country.

"We’ve kind of captured the nation," a visibly dejected Kerr said after walking off the pitch. "The support we’ve had has been amazing."

The 29-year-old Kerr has won the golden boot for leading scorer in leagues in Australia, the United States, and England, where she’s a star for the champion Chelsea team. But her World Cup was heavily curtailed by an injury sustained on the eve of the Matildas’ opening game on July 20.

Her left calf muscle became a topic of daily news Down Under, even after she returned as a second-half substitute in the dramatic penalty kick shootout win over France in the quarterfinals and, finally, started a game for the first time in the semifinal.

She was chopped down by defenders twice in the opening 10 minutes and had a relatively subdued first half, but brought the game to life with her stunning solo goal in the 63rd minute that levelled the score at 1-1 and renewed hope for the Matildas.

"We just feel really proud that they’ve got behind us and we’ve changed the way women’s football is seen in Australia," Kerr added. "It’s been amazing. A big thank you."

Kerr, who converted to soccer from Aussie rules as a teenager because she was no longer allowed to play in boys leagues, has seen a phenomenal transformation in the game since she made her international debut in 2009.

At age 15, she went on as a late substitute in a 1-5 loss to Italy at Canberra, Australia’s capital, where a crowd of 2,916 would never have believed the evolution that has occurred. She didn’t even give her parents much notice that she’d been selected.

In July and August of 2023, she’s had the nation’s full attention.

Morning news bulletins after the match reported the "heartbreak" for the Matildas, and daily newspapers across the country once again heavily featured the women’s national team. A high-profile sports store in downtown Sydney still had the Matildas jerseys — hard to attain in recent weeks — on display at full price. There’ll be no discounting this team for a while.

The domestic TV audience reported for the quarterfinal win was the biggest in Australia for any event since the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The semifinal broadcast was even bigger — significantly larger than the biggest men’s games in the Aussie rules Australian Football League and the National Rugby League that so frequently pull the biggest crowds.

The number of news pages devoted to the Matildas was unprecedented for women’s sport and for soccer in Australia, too. And this is home to the long-time No. 1 women’s cricket team — which pulled a crowd exceeding 86,000 for a game against India in 2020 — and world champions in netball.

The fact that an entire nation almost expected the Matildas to win the title says a lot about the pressure Kerr and her 10th-ranked team faced on home soil.

Australia had lost all three previous quarterfinals it reached at the Women’s World Cup. Only one host, the United States, had ever won a quarterfinal match at the Women’s World Cup.

So reaching the semifinals had the feel of a final. Tears and emotions poured out of long-time supporters and millions of more recent fans after that dramatic penalty kick shootout win over France in the quarterfinal.

Police reported it was vandals who caused a disruption to the train line from Stadium Australia in Sydney’s western suburbs back to the city, causing delays of more than 1 1/2 hours for some of the 75,000 people who attended the semifinal. For some, it just prolonged the pain.

For others, it’s already time to look to the future.

Matildas midfielder Alex Chidiac said the team had created "a legacy that’s going to live on and it obviously has inspired so many people."

"After the tournament, we’ll get all that perspective and this will be a lot easier to swallow," Chidiac said of the loss. "Obviously right now, it’s still very fresh. But I think overall (a) massive achievement. … we’ve got a whole bunch of passionate fans now, which is cool."

Mary Fowler, a 20-year-old emerging star for Manchester City who had a breakthrough tournament for Australia, will likely be part of that legacy.

"It’s always really nice, just watching videos and people around the country giving us some love," she said. "It’s been an unbelievable tournament in that sense."

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From The Asian Reporter, V33, #9 (September 4, 2023), pages 12.

Bigger bonuses could change lives for tiny teams that advanced in the Women’s World Cup

By Anne M. Peterson

The Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia — Players who reached the knockout round at the Women’s World Cup got larger individual bonuses that can be life-changing for many of them.

FIFA designated $30,000 for the 732 players among 32 teams in the tournament field. The payout rose to $60,000 for players on the 16 teams that advanced out of group play.

The money grew to $90,000 for players in the quarterfinals and its a significant payday for many of the players, particularly those that have had financial disputes with their federations over pay and support.

Hildah Magaia, appropriately nicknamed the "Breadwinner" of South Africa’s squad, helped the Banyana Banyana advance out of group play, into the knockout stage, and double her bonus.

She appropriately plans to use the money to care for her mother.

"I’ll be able to do everything for my mother because I’m the one who’s taking care of her," she said. "I’m the breadwinner, so I’ll be doing everything for my mom."

Deneisha Blackwood, part of the Jamaica squad eliminated by Colombia in the knockouts, described the minimum payouts as a good start for her team. Jamaica has had financial difficulties and relied on crowdfunding to raise money for its travel to the tournament.

"Obviously we as players have a life outside of football and I think prize money like that rewards us in ways we can’t imagine. A lot of us have bills to pay and family to take care of," Blackwood said, "and I think for the younger generation, especially, football doesn’t make you a lot of money. So for (girls) to see us doing what we love and realize that you can make a living off it — it’s motivational."

No one can ensure all the players will receive their guaranteed bonuses.

The global players union, FIFPRO, last year sent a letter to FIFA on behalf of players from 25 national teams asking for better conditions within the tournament. FIFA announced the individual bonuses of the $110 million prize pool in June.

But FIFA president Gianni Infantino said before the start of the World Cup that the federations would be responsible for distributing the payments. He was unable to make any guarantee that funds would reach the players.

FIFPRO said it was working to establish bank accounts for the players as well as an auditing process. But there have already been snags.

FIFPRO also announced it was assisting Nigeria’s players in a dispute with their federation concerning bonus payments, camp allowances, and expenses, some dating back to 2021. Nigeria narrowly missed the quarterfinals after a penalty kick shootout loss to England.

"The team is extremely frustrated that they’ve had to pursue the Nigeria Football Federation for these payments before and during the tournament," FIFPRO said. "It is regrettable that players needed to challenge their own federation at such an important time in their careers."

In the run-up to the World Cup, South Africa players boycotted a warm-up match against Botswana because the individual payments weren’t included in their contracts. The dispute ended when billionaire Patrice Motsepe, the president of the African Football Confederation, agreed to contribute $320,000 to be equally distributed among the players.

Some of the Jamaican players took to social media before the World Cup to complain about a lack of support and funding for the team. That spurred two crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for the Reggae Girlz.

The Jamaican Football Federation released a statement saying reports about the team’s financial struggles had taken away from the team’s accomplishments. The Reggae Girlz reached the Round of 16 but fell 0-1 to Colombia.

"We of course welcome anyone who wants to contribute to the development of our national football teams, which have done well and made Jamaica proud," the Jamaican federation said in a statement.

Nigeria forward Uchenna Kanu said the money was not the team’s main motivation — playing well was. Nigeria reached the Round of 16, but fell to England on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw.

"But of course, if we get paid that much money, of course it’ll have a huge impact on our lives," Kanu said. "We have families, we have things to take care of with money. That’s important for us as well."

Players from the United States won a contract with U.S. Soccer last year that guarantees them equal pay with their men’s national team counterparts. As part of the agreement, all tournament prize money funds are split between the two teams, with a percentage going to the federation.

The total prize pool at this Women’s World Cup is more than three times the $30 million prize fund that was paid out at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. But it’s still far less than the $440 million in prize money for the men’s World Cup in Qatar last December.

AP Sports Writer John Pye in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.

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