WHEN HALEY RASO received a nifty assist from Emily van Egmond in front of goal, then calmly slotted the ball into the left corner to put the Matildas up 2-0 against Denmark on Monday night, I became aware that my right fist was clenched above my head. As I lowered it, I realised it was probably the first time in a long time that I had physically reacted to a feat on a sporting field by a female athlete.
Somewhat baffled and intrigued by this rare occurrence, I tried to recall previous instances of heartfelt, involuntary celebration while watching women’s sport. It wasn’t difficult. I haven’t watched a great deal of women’s sport, so the occasions when it has moved me are easily recalled. Way back in the late ’80s and early ’90s I regularly cheered for Steffi Graf in tennis. I was a huge Boris Becker fan at the time, so that may have been the impetus for this unlikely fandom, but mostly I just admired the calm, professional way Graf went about her business. The fact that women’s tennis has always enjoyed a decent platform in grand slams meant that as a kid I just watched and enjoyed what was in front of me, as many kids appear to be doing with the Matildas right now. Funny how kids always seem to get it right. When I watched Graf, I mostly forgot I was watching a woman play tennis—she could have been an alien for all I cared; her forehand was certainly otherworldly. But my focus was purely on the outcome of the match.
Similarly, during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, I recall losing my shit while watching on a small screen at a street stall in Seoul, South Korea, when Cathy Freeman won gold in the 400m, still the highest rated sports event in Australian TV history. Once again, it was irrelevant to me that Freeman was a woman; I just wanted an Aussie to win gold. Needless to say, I’ve had similar sensations watching the Matildas these last two weeks.
The reason why women’s sport has only occasionally managed to move me to hysterical celebration is quite simple: I haven’t watched enough of it. Rarely have women’s teams been afforded the platform the Matildas are enjoying right now, with broadcasts of their games on commercial TV in prime time. As Jim Morrison’s ghost said in Wayne’s World 2: “if you book them, they will come.”
So, now that women’s sport is right under my nose, like many men, I’m waking up to its inherent charms. And those are manifold. Many have made the argument that without the freakish bodies and stupendous athleticism present at the highest levels of men’s sport, women’s sport is a purer spectacle. Players are more patient and deliberate in their offensive sets, and they’re less likely to rely on speed and athleticism to try and beat opponents one on one.
A similar comparison could be made with European or FIBA basketball, where passing, shooting and sophisticated offence are prioritised ahead of the individual brilliance and highlight-reel culture of the NBA, in which, with a couple of notable exceptions—the early 2010s Spurs and the Golden State Warriors—the ball can stop moving. In the NBA, the pick and roll, a move involving just two players that usually results in lobs and dunks is the default form of offence for most teams. Don’t get me wrong, I like a soul-destroying dunk, cheeky nutmeg or reverse sweep for six as much as the next beer-swilling sports fan. I’m just now realising after watching more women’s football in the last two weeks than I have in my entire life, that watching the ball ping around in a more egalitarian fashion is also fun.
There was another exchange during Monday night’s game against Denmark that caught my eye. It occurred midway through the second half when Caitlin Foord was being pressured by a Danish defender who was frankly all over her. At one point the defender shoved Foord in the back. Conditioned by the men’s game, I waited for Foord to take a dive. Instead she kept battling and beat her opponent, who then tried to trip her before the referee finally blew the whistle. In the men’s game, when faced with even a fraction of the defensive pressure Foord was under, you can bet the player hits the deck. Maybe that’s regarded as smart play, but to casual fans, as many of the record numbers tuning in to watch the Matildas for the first time are, the way Foord battled her opponent to the death looked like good footy—and she was rewarded with a free kick anyway. The comparative absence of diving, flopping and other repertory histrionics in the women’s game has a lot to recommend it.
Now, do I think the fact that myself, and many other male sports fans, are suddenly engaging with women’s sport because of these factors? No, I don’t. Anecdotally, many guys I talk to have said things to the effect of “once you stop comparing it to the men’s game you find yourself getting into it”. But I would argue that’s true of any sport, men’s or women’s. If you watch a game through a dedicated lens, get absorbed in what’s unfolding in front of you and buy into the narratives—yes, Sam Kerr’s freakin’ calf—then I don’t think the chromosomes of the players really matter. It’s for this reason that I usually enjoy European, college or FIBA basketball once I accept that it’s a different product, almost a different sport to the NBA.
What about the standard of play? As I mentioned before, there is a lot to like about the women’s game in this regard, but, to be honest, I personally don’t think skill is much of a factor in how much you enjoy a game—some of the most memorable games I’ve watched in the NBA were dogged, ugly affairs (game 7 of the 2016 finals come to mind) in which exhausted players relied less on skill and finesse and more on grit and competitive drive to triumph. It’s for this reason that you can watch a schoolboys or girls’ game of football and find yourself on the edge of your seat if your kid is playing—if they’re not it’s likely boring as batshit. But equally, games at the elite level can be just as dull if you don’t have a stake in the game.
It’s worth noting that many women are watching women’s football for the first time in this tournament as well. Some of these women, I imagine, haven’t previously watched a lot of men’s sport either. Regardless of gender, if you don’t watch a sport with some intent, it can either seem as impenetrable as quantum physics or quickly be reduced to what it is: grown men and women chasing a ball around a field.
To be fully appreciated, sport relies on your investment in the outcome and in that regard, there is no greater mobiliser of fan fervour than patriotism. It’s why the country as a whole has always managed to get behind our female swimmers. It’s why you can lose yourself in the absorbing battle of an Olympic sport as silly as walking.
It’s for this reason that I’m a little fearful of what happens to women’s football when you take patriotism out of the equation. Do all the casuals, myself included, who’ve jumped on the Matildas’ bandwagon these last two weeks, suddenly start watching the A-League Women? I would say no, even though if we did actually watch it, got to know the teams and the clubs’ back stories, we might find the necessary stakes required to enjoy the game. I’m not going to pretend that’s something I’m going to do—I rarely have time to watch any sport these days, male or female. But the next time a women’s sporting contest is put in front of me—honestly, it will most likely be at the Olympics or next WWC—I won’t analyse my motivations for watching it. I’ll just enjoy it.