The Matildas, the soccer team and song, are national treasures in Australia

BRISBANE, Australia — Of all the sounds that might charm an ear on a sidewalk at a pub window, here came a ripper. It flowed from inside a half-full bar called the Cauldron, up the street from a stadium that rugby apostles nicknamed “The Cauldron.” It landed about three hours after that stadium staged a 49,000-person stress test of a World Cup quarterfinal that Australia’s adored Matildas won by a hairbreadth. It soothed even as its singers might have lacked both classical training and sobriety.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me …

By the time it died down, an unforgettable Saturday night had passed for the team with the jaunty nickname everyone uses and the 128-year-old song from which that nickname almost certainly stems, during a tournament in which the Matildas have embodied at least one vein of the song.

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They have neither whacked any sheep nor resisted arrest by hurling themselves into a pond, but they have faced tyranny — in this case, fate — and they have kept going with indomitable aplomb until you could compliment them for the rugged art of just getting on with it.

Somehow, more than a century after poet, war correspondent and author Banjo Paterson penned “Waltzing Matilda,” the song’s mind-bending history has winded its way to a booming tangent: The Matildas have enthralled a sports-adoring nation on their way to a loud semifinal against England on Wednesday.

It’s probably a good thing the song is not, as some have believed through time, about a woman named Matilda, dancing. That would have seemed so tame.

It’s about a swagman, or an itinerant laborer and hardy adventurer, moving around, or waltzing, through the bush with his belongings in a sort of a backpack, or Matilda. Nowadays the Matildas’ less-raffish adventure has “united the country with an idealized version of the Australian character — patient, skilled and joyous to watch,” as George Megalogenis wrote in the Age, and it happens 28 years after they got their name when a TV station phone poll saw “Matildas” beat out “Soccertoos,” “Blue Flyers,” “Waratahs” and “Lorikeets.” In a story about the origin of the name, the Australian Broadcasting Company noted the influence of a winking kangaroo named Matilda at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, though that Matilda owed her name to the 1895 “Matilda.” All of it shows how far a song can go with words such as swagman, billabong and coolibah.

The song has gone a far-out kind of far, even if reading its history tends to grow confusing. It has drawn frequent mention as an unofficial national anthem. It has gotten debated. It has been crooned by giant sports crowds, including 110,000-plus at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Closing Ceremonies. Many revere it. Some reject it for its part in a nostalgic paintbrush on a history far nastier than mythologized. Romp around Australia talking to parents here and there, and it seems many schoolchildren still know it.

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And: In 1998, “Waltzing Matilda” became the first song in the world with its own museum.

“That story of the Australian work ethic where you just keep going, no matter what hardship, registers with people — that sense of adventure,” said Shannon Stoter, visitor experience officer at the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, Queensland, a town of about 870. “… I guess maybe it just captures the Australian lifestyle.”

As the telling often goes, the jolly swagman apparently was a sheep shearer who apparently joined the shearers strike of the 1890s and apparently helped kill some sheep to spite an owner, who then apparently summoned the cops, who then apparently went to arrest the jolly swagman, who then apparently took his own life in the billabong rather than give in to authority, and then morphed into a ghost. The song finished second to “Advance Australia Fair,” 43 percent to 28 percent, in a 1977 referendum aiming to determine the national anthem. While “Advance Australia Fair” precedes each match and Men at Work’s wit-rich “Down Under” concluded the one Saturday, there might be one or two or more in the crowds craving a “Waltzing Matilda.”

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“Australians love a battler,” Gavin Baskett, the mayor of Winton, said by phone. “Australians love an underdog.”

If the Matildas didn’t become underdogs on the World Cup’s opening night July 20, they became deeply inconvenienced. The game neared kickoff when the lineups revealed that Sam Kerr, possibly the best player in the world, would not play, with an announcement blaming a calf injury from the day before. The timing achieved a most wretched wretchedness — it came not only on the cusp of a World Cup but just before a World Cup as co-host — but the Matildas wriggled through that match with Ireland, 1-0, then lost, 3-2, to Nigeria while also lacking 20-year-old sensation Mary Fowler, in the concussion protocol after a stray ball struck her at practice.

The Matildas have extracted their backs from the wall with charismatic energy ever since in wins over Canada (4-0), Denmark (2-0 with Kerr appearing as a substitute) and France (on grueling penalties after a scoreless draw Saturday, with Kerr again as substitute). The Matildas sustained the jolts. They enhanced their strengths. They got on with it.

“I think Banjo [Paterson] hit the very core of the Australian ego, the keynote to all his stuff, because [that ego] is hard, it’s resolute,” late Australian artist Norman Lindsay said in 1964, as retold by ABC in 2014. “There’s no pandering to self-pity.”

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The museum that honors Banjo’s biggest song — “If there is one song that lives in the heart of all Australians, it is ‘Waltzing Matilda,’ ” it advertises — sits out in the vast, sparse middle, in the central-western part of the state of Queensland. It draws 30,000 visitors per year, Stoter said. It shares the town with the North Gregory Hotel, a fellow tourist attraction where the song first played in April 1895. There’s a theater that plays the entire version after which, she said, “People say it does make them cry.”

“We hang our hat on it,” said Baskett, the mayor. “[We] love it and are very, very proud of its humble beginnings here in Winton and where it’s gone in the world” — with versions all over and from sometimes the best of all over, such as Harry Belafonte. “I have no fear that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ will ever be forgotten about, but it’s up to us to make sure it stays at the forefront.” As a guy who moved to Winton 36 years ago as a truck driver delivering sheep and cattle, this mayor and rugby man has caught on to these Matildas and found them “quite enjoyable.”

The ratings have echoed that sentiment as the Matildas have moved along like Matildas, capable of stoking kaleidoscopic nights of Matildas and “Matilda,” keeping the name bubbling on through time. “Couple [the name] with the green and gold,” Stoter said, “and you know who you’re looking at straightaway.”

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