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Australia has 'Matilda Mania' as the team goes on to Women's World Cup quarter-finals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. team is out of the Women's World Cup, dashing the hopes of many fans. But the Australian team, the Matildas, has advanced to the quarterfinals. On Saturday, they will play against France. And as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, Matilda mania is sweeping Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Matilda mania has intensified.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I cried tears of pride watching our girls last night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We should talk about the Matildas. They're driving us all wild.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Matilda mania is everywhere these days in Australia. Stadiums are sold out. Some public viewing areas are at capacity.

(CHEERING)

HADID: The last match the Matildas played was the most watched event of the year on television - so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Caitlin Ford scores for Australia.

HADID: Saturday's quarterfinal is expected to be even bigger, effectively forcing the country's most popular football code, the AFL, to delay the start of their own big Saturday matches so they don't overlap with the Matildas. The code is also negotiating with FIFA to broadcast the Matildas game to tens of thousands of fans in their stadiums as a curtain-raiser. Patricia Karvelas, one of Australia's leading journalists, had this to say.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Remember when they used to say no one wanted to watch women play sport? Apparently, everyone wants to watch women play sport at the elite level.

HADID: Observers credit the cut-through to the Matildas' newfound visibility. The Women's World Cup is broadcast in primetime. Games are in large stadiums. Merchandise is everywhere. And the players themselves are charismatic, tough and talented.

FIONA CRAWFORD: The audience was always there. It's just never been catered to, if you like.

HADID: Fiona Crawford wrote a history of the Matildas. She says this moment took decades to come. For a women's invitational World Cup 35 years ago, the players stitched their own logos onto hand-me-down men's jerseys. They funded their trip with bake sales. One year, the team posed naked for a calendar to drum up media attention. A turning point was in 2015, when the women went on strike, forcing sports officials to pay attention. A few years later, they achieved pay parity with the men's team. Crawford again.

CRAWFORD: That's why this tournament is so significant and why we're all feeling so emotional. It's that, for so long, we've been told there's no value. There's no market. There's no audience. But you can't help but wonder - could we have been here a little bit sooner?

HADID: That question - could we have been here a little bit sooner? - is bringing up mixed feelings for many women as they watch the Matildas.

VAN BADHAM: Yeah, it's regret, and it's envy as well.

HADID: Van Badham is a columnist for The Guardian. She wrote a piece about her joy and sadness watching the Matildas. She says it wasn't just about watching the players. It was also watching the girls cheer them on, their faces painted with the Matildas' green and gold colors.

BADHAM: They were screaming and leaping on their seats. Nobody was policing them, telling them to be more ladylike. Nobody was telling them to settle petal. There was finally this cultural moment where these girls could be themselves, and that really brought it all home to me. I burst into tears.

HADID: A cultural moment, Badham says, where girls can be themselves, where female athletes are celebrated - a moment that she and so many other women missed.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Fremantle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.