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HomeNewsArnold leads Australia to first World Cup semis – DW – 08/12/2023

Arnold leads Australia to first World Cup semis – DW – 08/12/2023

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It was a game of chess for 120 minutes. Herve Renard in white, shirt unbuttoned down to his chest. Tony Gustavvson in black, baseball cap fixed firmly to his scalp.

The two coaches attempted to coax and cajole the pieces on the board to their liking, the momentum exchanging furiously in a tight match of fine margins played at a breathtaking pace.

But, by this point in knockout football, a coach’s job is largely done. It’s up to the players on the pitch to take the control and responsibility themselves.

And in the end, one piece needed to step up to make the difference as the match went to penalties and extended far beyond what anyone’s nerves could handle.

Except those of Mackenzie Arnold, who stood up as the Matildas’ Queen on the chessboard, her goalkeeping heroics sealing a first-ever World Cup semifinal for Australian football.

the queen on the chess board whose goalkeeping heroics sealed a first-ever World Cup semifinal for Australia.

“One word for Mackenzie: MVP,” Emily van Egmond told DW as she searched for words.

“She was immense for us,” Egmond said. “We always know she’s going to come up big for us in those moments. She’s unbelievable at penalties, and she’s had an amazing tournament so far.”

The shootout was tense, with every single on-field player taking a shot as it went 10 rounds. Arnold herself had a chance to seal victory with Australia’s fifth, but it cannoned back off the post.

Lesser humans would have crumbled after such a setback. But Arnold steeled herself and saved Kenza Dali’s penalty twice (after it had to be retaken) to give the decisive momentum swing to her teammates.

“That was such a rollercoaster of emotions, but I’m just glad I could do my job and get the girls over the line,” Arnold said. “To see how the team rallied around me when I missed the penalty, I’m just so happy to be part of this team and so proud to be Australian.”

Sam Kerr of Australia celebrates after a successful penalty shot during the World Cup
Sam Kerr nailed one of Australia’s seven successful penalty shotsImage: JONO SEARLE/AAP/IMAGO

Vicki Becho hit the post for France, and forward Cortnee Vine sealed the victory.

“That was wild,” Vine said.

“I wasn’t expecting it to get to 10,” she added. “In that moment, you just have to look inwards and back yourself. And Mackenzie, she had a cracking game, she made some major saves for us, and her whole tournament has been amazing.”

Cortnee Vine of Australia kicks a successful penalty goal to defeat France
Vine made the penalty shot that sealed the match for AustraliaImage: DARREN ENGLAND/AAP/IMAGO

Another electric atmosphere

The Welcome to Country set the tone. The traditional welcome from Aboriginal elders has opened every match in Australia, but this one felt extra special in front of a near 50,000-strong crowd.

Uncle Shannon Ruska sent a spine-tingling version of Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda” around the Suncorp Stadium, singing in his Aboriginal language as the crowd joined in for the English chorus.

If the players weren’t already pumped by the noise and support, that rendition must have truly given their endorphin levels a hit.

Both sides had their chances. Mary Fowler saw a number of efforts blocked or saved and Vine went agonisingly close at the back post. France’s Eugenie Le Sommer, Maëlle Lakrar and Becho all saw efforts tipped away by Mackenzie.

“It was a bit of a blur,” Steph Catley told DW. “We were really fighting. The game really did swing in momentum a lot. There were times when we were dominant, there were times they were dominant.

“Both teams pressed really well. But I thought we fought really well, and Macka came up big and made massive saves.”

France thought they’d won it in the 100th minute, Alanna Kennedy heading into her own net, but the referee spotted a foul from Wendie Renard in the buildup.

Penalties really was the only way to separate these two sides, and the Matildas managed to find the strength and belief to get over the line, with a raucous crowd behind them.

“That was insane. There were a couple of moments in the dying minutes of extra time, they were just so loud,” Vine said.

“It was so hard to think,” she added. “But it was unreal, and the Australian public have been so supportive and so loud. And I hope they continue to be loud.”

Australian players celebrate
With her teammates’ help, Arnold held France scoreless for 120 minutes of regular timeImage: JONO SEARLE/AAP/IMAGO

Australia’s next ‘moment’

Gustavsson has spoken a lot about “moments” during this tournament: Steph Catley’s penalty against Ireland, the bounceback against Canada after the capitulation against Nigeria. Caitlin Foord harassing Denmark into submission.

The Matildas are on a roll, so much so that Gustavsson’s hands must be red, raw and sore. When they weren’t feverishing applauding his team’s play across the match he was popping double thumbs-ups like a goofy dad from the 1990s.

And the first player he embraced at the final whistle, after first sinking to the floor and taking a moment to himself, was Arnold.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Arnold said. “I haven’t really processed exactly what’s happened.”

“Australia has been our 12th man in this tournament,” Arnold said. “We really needed them in this game, and they turned up for us tonight.”

On a historic night for Australian football, Arnold stood up as both sides searched for a defining moment. There is now true belief running through the Matildas as they prepare for a semifinal showdown against England.

“Everyone believed in themselves, believed in the team,” Catley said. “So we didn’t stop and think for one second that we weren’t going to win this. If you have belief and the spirit that we have and the fight for each other and the willingness to run and work and make angles for each other and create for each other … sometimes it comes down to who wants it most.

“And I can tell you right now that every single player on our team wants this, 100%, without a shadow of a doubt. So we’ll keep fighting, keep being there for each other, keep showing up.”

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