It was meant to end on a high. One final box to tick to cap off the Matildas’ record-breaking World Cup campaign on home soil. But from the first whistle of their third-place playoff game against Sweden it looked unlikely to happen. A first-half penalty by Fridolina Rolfö and a second-half cracker from captain Kosovare Asllani decisively put Australia in fourth place at this tournament. By no means a failure, but not what they wanted.
It started as a classy display of possession football by Sweden but progressively descended into chaos as the first half progressed. Sweden dominated early and a masterclass from Asllani and Stina Blackstenius brought Mackenzie Arnold into action within a minute of play. Veteran defender Clare Polkinghorne, in the starting XI due to Alanna Kennedy’s concussion-enforced absence, had lunged with all her weight towards Asllani who was able to easily sidestep her and find Blackstenius in space.
The defensive error was something you may expect from a World Cup debutant, not from the Matildas’ most-capped player. But Polkinghorne, like the rest of Tony Gustavsson’s substitutes, had not played many minutes before the semi-final defeat to England. Some of those players did finally get their time on the pitch, and not just for one minute of pointless running, but it was not enough to counter the clinical performance from Sweden.
In those opening minutes, Gustavsson could be seen pacing the perimeter of his technical area, earpiece in, green and gold scarf around his neck to reassure that tonight any allegiance to Sweden had been buried deep down. Sweden, in their home kit of yellow and blue, squandered their chances in that early period of dominance, and were not able to find the final touch or panicked under pressure.
Australia seemed to properly enter the game from the 18-minute mark. Sam Kerr laid the ball off to Caitlin Foord but her cross went over the head of Mary Fowler on the six-yard box. Then Steph Catley supplied Kerr with an inch-perfect pass, the captain finding Hayley Raso who couldn’t get the cross off before going over the line. Then Raso had Australia’s best chance of the half after a cross from Carpenter landed at her feet on the right of the penalty area but the midfielder sent her straight to Zećira Mušović.
The packed Brisbane Stadium was bursting with tension at these promising chances but then, in an instant, deflated. A header from Elin Rubensson was stopped by the crossbar but it was the movement just seconds before that would ultimately prove costly. As Blackstenius charged into the area Clare Hunt lost her footing and ever so slightly clipped the Swede’s heel, sending them both to the ground. VAR deemed it a foul and Rolfö stepped up to dispatch her kick into the bottom right corner of the net. Hunt’s foul was replayed on the screens inside the stadium and the nearly 50,000-strong crowd dutifully booed.
From that point tempers flared. First it was Foord alerting the referee to her displeasure about a free-kick decision and giving Musovic a little nudge when she decided to get involved. Then, a late ankle tap from Katrina Gorry secured the midfielder a yellow card. And with just minutes remaining in the half, Gorry and Asllani engaged in some push and shove.
Gustavsson finally went to his bench just 10 minutes into the second half, bringing on quarter-final penalty shootout hero Cortnee Vine for Raso and Emily van Egmond for Gorry. He might have been aiming for an injection of energy and de-escalation of frustrations but the substitutes barely got a look in before a Fowler fumble set Asllani and Blackstenius loose on the counterattack. After the initial ball from Asllani, Blackstenius ran down the centre before cutting it back to her captain who got her full power and laces behind her shot to the right of Arnold and into the back of the net.
Alex Chidiac and Courtney Nevin were next to enter the fray. Their legs may have been fresher than those of their teammates but it didn’t matter against a Swedish team who did not at all look like they had also just played six World Cup games.
The bronze medal was what the Matildas were thinking about as soon as they left the pitch after their semi-final defeat to England on Wednesday. It is what everyone in the host nation had hoped for. It was not to be but no one could think Australia has truly been left empty-handed with a fourth-place finish. The mark that the Matildas’ World Cup performance has left on women’s football, and the nation as a whole, is profound. Whether that mark fades or is etched deeper into Australia’s consciousness is yet to be seen. That no longer depends on the 23 women who have inspired a country with their skill and heart, but rather on the millions of others who have been swept up this World Cup fever.