In Australia, a welcome World Cup nestles into the sports-mad landscape

SYDNEY — Hop a mere 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to here in July, and it’s as if the sun has decided to renege. Where it toiled past 8 p.m. back up and over there, it knocks off at just after 5 here, even in a land it legendarily adores. All of a sudden the physiology must grapple with the weaker winter light, even if pleasant days in the high 60s make it more a “winter” than a winter.

Life can seem a notch slower than peak in the great metropolis, even if not in the case of the Australian white ibis who walks right through the door of the Royal Botanic Gardens’ indoor cafe to mill around, scavenging. There’s not a lot of skin showing on Bondi Beach, but four women on the balcony of the restaurant at the famed Bondi Icebergs Swimming Club on Sunday had thrown on enough pink to make themselves commendable versions of “Barbie.”

None of this qualifies as even a hint of hardship, for the world has returned a global sporting event to its sports-fondest, sports-maddest country. It calls to mind the words of a pundit in 2010 after Qatar got the 2022 men’s World Cup over the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia, whereupon the pundit said, “Any vote for a sporting event in which Australia gets only one vote is automatically rigged.” The women’s World Cup feels right and well-done and appreciated and in a proper setting because of course it would, even if it can’t hog the attention as could World Cups in Qatar or Russia because here it joins the usual and bountiful sports smorgasbord.

A World Cup can’t have unfettered attention when, for one thing, Collingwood and Port Adelaide just played an 85-83 Australian rules football goose bump one headline called a “ripper” — a word utterly superior to its synonym “classic” — but a World Cup certainly can mine the Australian enthusiasm with that enthusiasm so ample.

“Aussies love their sport, don’t they?” said Sam Kerr, the Aussie soccer North Star, who missed her squad’s first game with a calf injury and is expected to miss its second. “More than 90 percent of adults have an interest in sport,” saith the government after culling the statistics. The TV ratings for the Matildas’ opener against Ireland on Thursday night smashed various records for women’s sports even without the enthralling Kerr, snaring 4.88 million viewers across the platforms of the Seven Network.

Some 75,784 watched in the stadium, and some 44,369 witnessed England-Haiti in 49,461-seat Brisbane Stadium, and about 17,000 wedged into 18,727-seat Perth Rectangular Stadium for Denmark-China, and so on. The run-ups to such occasions have boasted their mirth: trains rolling from central Sydney out to the Olympic stadium where Australia played Ireland brimmed with Aussies and Irish, with the former laughing along with one crooner from the latter as he thought up songs and belted them out, maybe even buttressed by beverage. The streets and bars near the stadium in Brisbane before England-Haiti felt like the streets before any you-name-it big game, even as some of the bar TVs showed the National Rugby League match between Melbourne and Newcastle, with the Storm (that’s Melbourne) up 12-0 (before the Knights apparently won, 26-18).

Haiti, fearless against a giant, makes its World Cup debut

More acutely, the country, which is co-hosting the event with New Zealand, will follow the plight of Kerr’s injured calf among all the things it’s following, such that Will Swanton in the Weekend Australian likened it to David Beckham’s metatarsal in England before the 2002 World Cup. “Kerr’s calf has become David Beckham’s foot,” Swanton wrote, soon adding, “Now we will be watching every step Kerr takes and every move she makes for the foreseeable future.”

Calf injuries, he noted, can lack for gentility.

A women’s World Cup retains an intimate vibe. Walk the promenade under the famed Harbour Bridge in Sydney, and you might find yourself milling among the Colombian team taking a stroll. Check in at the Brisbane airport, and here comes the Ireland team in its home-base city, heading to the World Cup security line before heading clear to Perth, most of the way all the way across a land only slightly smaller than the 48 U.S. contiguous.

In a big country, besides a Collingwood-Port Adelaide struggle atop the football “ladder” — a word utterly superior to its synonym “standings” — there’s what looks like a furious scrap for the finals series that will feature the top eight teams between teams bunched together from fifth to 12th, from Western Bulldogs to St. Kilda to GWS Giants to Geelong Cats to Carlton to Richmond to Essendon to Sydney Swans to maybe more hopefuls. It looks like fun even if you have no idea what any of it means.

Then, here in this dreamy place to be a novice fan, there’s the National Rugby League with the Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos up top of the ladder. There’s cricket’s 141-year-old Ashes tussle, between Australia and England as always, carrying on in England even as enthusiasm seems mild. Up in Japan in the pool, the Aussie marvel Ariarne Titmus, still 22 after all this time, just busted the 400-meter freestyle record while representing her medals-per-capita juggernaut of a homeland. Horse racing still looks abundant.

The sports heritage, of course, lurks everywhere. The Olympic stadium in which the Matildas played Ireland would be the same one in which the Aboriginal Australian Cathy Freeman electrified a country from Lane 6 in the 400 meters at the 2000 Olympics, the same Freeman who surprise-visited the Matildas pre-World Cup. “I don’t really get star-struck,” Kerr said, “but when Cathy walked in the room, I was pretty star-struck, to be honest, because she has such a presence.”

Outside the Sydney Football Stadium stand statues of runners Marlene Mathews and the late Betty Cuthbert, the latter the only person ever to win gold medals in all of the 100, 200 and 400 meters, the two presences snugly fit with the events about to go on behind them. Down the way there’s a statue of Paul Kelly, the 10-season Sydney Swans captain called “Captain Courageous” and born in Wagga Wagga, and up in Brisbane, outside that stadium, there stands John Eales, the most successful captain in Australian rugby history, kindly called “Nobody” because, of course, Nobody’s perfect. There’s too much to learn in the best sports place to learn it, even as the Matildas have joined the national heart to such degree that people just want to learn what’s going on with that damned calf.

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