If Sport Is So Intrinsic to Aussie Culture, Why Are We Constantly Fumbling the Ball?

An image showing fans watching australia in sydney

With ten days left to go, the FIFA Women’s World Cup has already left a trail of shattered records in its wake. Biggest show on TV this year, the most tickets ever sold to a female sporting event, largest football crowds ever seen in Australia. And yet Australia, a nation that prides itself on its passion for sport, is once again unprepared for the popularity of the world’s most popular game.

On Monday night, as Australia faced off against Denmark, the temporarily rebranded Accor Stadium, with a capacity of 75,784, was sold completely. Tickets were already scarce months in advance. The only reason we’re not seeing world-record-beating crowds is because Australia’s largest stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, couldn’t accommodate FIFA’s request for seven weeks of uninterrupted use. With this kind of demand on the ground, there’s no doubt that the 100,000-capacity MCG would have sold out entirely.

Fans who couldn’t get tickets have gathered in pubs, bars, and at the five FIFA fan festival sites to cheer on their teams. On Monday, Tumbalong Park in Sydney, with a capacity of 5,000 and an overflow of 5,000 (if you want to stand on the roof of the ICC), was standing room only. Federation Square, in Melbourne, with its 10,000 capacity, was similar.

With back-to-back games potentially running to six hours of football, $11 mid-strength tinnies, and no outside food allowed to be brought in, it’s not the most comfortable environment to watch the games.

Still, a total of half a million fans have passed through the gates of the FIFA Fan Festivals set up in each of the host cities, and we’ve still got another six games until the final match of the tournament.

And yet it’s not clear exactly clear where the 75,000 who cheered on the Matildas in Sydney will be watching Saturday’s quarter-final game between Australia and France. The FIFA Fan Festival in Sydney can’t accommodate anywhere near those numbers, and pubs and bars are already booked up.

Having tried to book a table at a handful of the local go-to’s in Sydney on Monday night, we were informed that they were all already at capacity for Australia V France. That leaves walk-in venues and the chance of missing the game.

No doubt many will be watching at home but it doesn’t seem right that the nation hosting the biggest sports tournament in the world has few answers as to where fans should be going to be amongst the crowds to watch their home team.

A FIFA Repeat

In truth, we’ve been here before. During the men’s football world cup in 2022, then NSW Premier Dominic Perrotett seemed blindsided by the fact that people actually like and want to watch football. Galled by wild scenes at Fed Square showing up Australia’s biggest city for the cultural philistine that it is, Perrotett boldly and without detail claimed:

“We’re going to have a great live site, it’s going to be the best in the country. We’re going to have a great announcement very shortly. It’s going to be awesome,” Perrottet said, doing his best Donald Trump impression.

“I want everybody in the city and across the state to come out and enjoy the game”.

The site at Tumbalong Park was hastily put together for the 6am Round of 16 game against Argentina. By some counts, more than 18,000 people made their way there and it was a truly chaotic spectacle. The site was at capacity well before 5:30, with fans clambering onto roofs and forced to watch the game on their phones in surrounding streets.

At the same time, more than 20,000 packed into the decidedly more organised, although still a bit weird, showings at AAMI Park in Melbourne where massive screens were rolled onto the pitch for the game.

An image showing fans in Sydney watching the fifa world cup.
Image: Tumbalong Park, Sydney, during the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup Australia V Argentina game / Getty Images

It all smacked of utter surprise and backfootery. Anyone who watched those games in the freezing cold at 6 in the morning alongside thousands of others could have told you Australia was headed for similar crowd problems.

What’s more, these were games being hosted thousands of kilometres away in Qatar. This time around, we’re the ones hosting the show. With the undercurrent of interest and the steady drum beat of buildup in the background in the lead-up to these games, it was always going to be the case that interest would outweigh the options. You would have thought someone would have done something about this.

Bigger Than Anything We’ve Seen Before

The Daily Telegraph has reported that fans are already calling on FIFA, Destination NSW, and the Sydney Olympic Park to install big screens around Homebush for the 75,000 expected at the England V Colombia game at 8:30pm on Saturday, after the Matildas. Football fans pouring into the stadium are unlikely to be able to watch the Australia V France game as “the pubs [around Homebush] cannot handle 75,000 people.”

Sources tell the paper that FIFA is reluctant to show the earlier Matildas game in the stadium. The Sydney Cricket Ground, for its part, is allowing AFL fans to hang around after the Sydney Swans play the Gold Coast. The MCG is hoping to do the same but the whole thing feels very haphazard.

It’s as if the occasion of this moment is only just dawning on organisers who have had months to prepare. Ahead of the Matildas match on Saturday, major TV networks are adjusting their scheduling as the Matildas are now considered “certified box office” gold. The Australia V Denmark game drew more viewers than the AFL grand final in 2022, and Saturday is expected to be even bigger.

The success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been surprising to some but, behind the scenes, there is a careful strategy in the works that has delivered scenes rivalling those of any international football competition.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that FIFA has engaged Sydney-based agency Cultural Pulse which specialises in tapping into ‘micro-communities’ and is partly the reason so many, say, Colombians have turned up to support their teams at the games.

“We know that this is the world’s most popular sport, and it was just a matter of digging out and finding those fans and engaging them and getting them involved and making them understand that they can be part of this incredible event,” FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman told the paper.

Australia’s National Team

Australia, as a sporting nation, is a bit of a mongrel. We’ll watch anything and we excel at everything from swimming to surfing, rugby, AFL, cricket, athletics, netball, and even basketball. But the division between the sports has meant that you rarely get one subculture spilling over into the mainstream — until something like the FIFA World Cup rolls around.

That most casuals probably couldn’t name any of the Matildas players before the tournament, barring Sam Kerr, might have actually been a positive for the tournament. We love an underdog and we’ve heard our girls are doing well so we’re going to get behind them. There’s no inter-team rivalry here to divide us, only a world-class group of athletes vying for the top trophy against nations that aren’t our own. Throw in a heady mix of favourites being knocked out and a wave of pro-female sentiment that the Barbie movie has recently crystallised and you’re onto a unifying storm of national support. It’s no wonder that organisers can’t keep up.

And yet, having been here before, there’s still a sense of frustration that this should have been planned for. Come Saturday, fans across the country — at least those who couldn’t get one of the 52,000 tickets at Brisbane Stadium — will be piling into Fan Festivals and their favourite watering holes well before the 5pm kickoff just to get a good look at the screen.

With Australia not favourites to win the game, it could all come crashing down. If it doesn’t, and the Matildas make history by being the first Australian football team through to a World Cup semi-final, these problems are only going to get worse. If they don’t make it, the legacy of these games is going to ring large.

Let’s hope that next time we’re at least a little more prepared.

Related: “Quite Unsuitable for Females”: How Women’s Football Became the Biggest Game in the Country

Related: Where to Watch the Women’s FIFA World Cup in Sydney

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