SYDNEY -- Sometimes the footballing gods get together with their counterparts from the rest of the sporting pantheon and concoct something special, leaving those below scratching their heads as to how it's all possible.
How else can one possibly begin to explain how after a dramatic, goalless 120 minutes of football, it took 20 penalties -- the most ever in a World Cup, men's or women's -- to finally separate Australia and France and send the former through to the semifinals of the Women's World Cup?
Justify how, after Mackenzie Arnold's first save of Kenza Dali's ninth effort for France was called back by video review for her straying off her line, the Matildas goalkeeper stood up and saved the second attempt? Explain how Cortnee Vine, who has spoken of the "imposter syndrome" she regularly confronts as part of this team, was the one to step up, beat Solène Durand and send Australia to the final four?
Is there a better explanation than sporting divinities making merry for how it is England, of all possible opponents, are all that stands in the way of Australia making the final of a momentous home World Cup? Or to decipher the series of triumphs, tribulations, heartaches and ecstasies that has seen this group of Matildas -- a team that spent decades at the margins of a sport that itself had been pushed to the fringes of Australian society -- suddenly capturing the hearts of the nation in a manner whose universality and fervour is hitherto unprecedented?
A mortal scriptwriter would be laughed out of the room for envisioning this series of events.
The fact that the Matildas' World Cup campaign began with a surprise visit from Australian icon Cathy Freeman -- a figure whom several in the squad such as Sam Kerr, Lydia Williams and Kyah Simon cite as the hero of their childhoods -- feels particularly poignant. Now, 23 years on from Freeman's magnificent, nation-stopping 400m victory at the Sydney Olympics, those very same players will play in a World Cup semifinal at the very same venue in what will be the biggest sporting event Australia has seen since Freeman's famous run.
Freeman's ascent to legend that September evening remains the benchmark in Australian TV ratings history, attracting nearly 8.8 million viewers at a time when Australia's population was just a shade over 20 million. Her record has long been considered untouchable -- the previous next-best was the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, where an average of around 4 million watched on as England (them again) narrowly defeated the Wallabies at Stadium Australia (there again). That record stood until the Matildas bested it on Saturday, bringing in an average audience of 4.23 million viewers. And, as with most of the marks Tony Gustavsson's team has set as of late, that figure will almost certainly be broken again with their next match.
That's because, from a broader cultural perspective, the significance of it being the Lionesses who await the Matildas cannot be understated, nor can its ability to increase the broader attention that will descend on the game. No sporting rival has done more in opposition to help define the Australian character than the English. For all the ties that have and continue to bind the two nations, moments such as the infamous Bodyline Ashes cricket series of the 1930s played a foundational role in Australia finding its sense of self and asserting its own identity. Playing the old colonial power in sport, often through triumph in games that the English invented and perceived themselves as custodians of, has served as an opportunity for Australia to assert itself on the international stage and reinforce the creation myths that form the bedrock of Australia's national psyche.
These days, the Australian-English rivalry is grounded in paradoxical values. It's a series of back-and-forth exchanges wherein a deep-seated history of friendship, comradery and often family, compete with a simmering undercurrent of disdain and a desire to prove one's superiority in both a physical and moral sense. There's not just a desire to win, but to be better and, if one can't do the former, at least deny the opponent the latter. Just see the controversies dogging the latest Ashes series in cricket as an example.
It's also a contest in which one party can be in the midst of an unprecedented spell of dominance yet still need to fear the other at all times -- see England's snapping of a period of Australian dominance at the recent Netball World Cup (even if the Diamonds later went on to defeat them in the final).
Sophie Lawson recaps a dramatic quarterfinal between Australia and France as the co-hosts advance to the Women's World Cup semifinals.
And while it's been a rivalry contested in "friendly" meetings on the football pitch in the past -- the Matildas won 2-0 in an April contest that broke the Lionesses' 30-game unbeaten run -- Wednesday will finally mark the first occasion that these two have met in a competitive fixture in the planet's most popular and most watched sport.
For England, the game thus not only represents an opportunity to make a World Cup final for the first time but to also land a blow on their rivals that may never truly heal. Australia's home World Cup, which has brought the nation together in a way difficult to comprehend, would forever be afflicted with the memory that it was England -- them -- that ended it. This would only be magnified further if Sarina Wiegman's side went on to win the final, ensuring that the first memory that the rest of the world would take from this tournament, Australia's tournament, would be of England lifting the trophy.
The Matildas, though, can write themselves further into folklore with a win. This tournament has already been a dream and advancing to the final at the expense of England, defeating them in the game they invented and hold most dear, would elevate Australia as a nation into some sort of collective nirvana state. It would be a win that would reverberate throughout generations, inspiring girls, boys and everything in between.
And that, in a way, brings us back to Freeman, who, coincidently, beat two English rivals in the 2000 final. It also brings us to another sporting icon in Marta, and the echoes of history that will greet the Matildas on Wednesday evening. Two weeks ago, the Brazilian legend, who for long periods effectively was women's football to vast swathes of the planet, broke down in tears as ahead of her final World Cup game as she recalled a lack of female role models that she had experienced growing up, and how there had been no idols for her to emulate.
"In 2003, nobody knew Marta," she said. "Twenty years later, we have become the reference for many women all over the world. We opened doors for equality."
For the Matildas, the senior members of this squad and those before them that have driven the team into the mainstream, it was a very familiar tale. Ignored and pushed to the margins by an already marginalised sport, failed by those that considered themselves the game's leaders, women's football in Australia was relegated largely to the shadows during their development, with its continued existence owing to the dedicated efforts of those that refused, often thanklessly and even more often without pay, to let it die. The first time Williams, now at her fifth World Cup, heard of the Matildas was when she was called into national camp. In these circumstances, inspiration had to be found elsewhere. And for many members of the team, that was Freeman.
And while it received less press than her tears, Marta also spoke at that conference about the generational change that was occurring at this World Cup. She spoke of how "cool" it was that the harder she and her peers worked, the more opportunities were created for others, and how that "brings brilliance to women's football." It didn't matter that it was coming at her expense, what mattered is that those girls now had these kinds of opportunities.
In that way, then, it feels oddly fitting that a team filled with players inspired by Freeman's famous victory will now run out onto the very same stadium and come closer than anybody else has to reaching the same levels of national enchantment as she did. Expecting the Matildas to break that near 9 million record is a bridge too far, given that viewers would have watch an entire game of football, as opposed to a 49.13-second 400-meter dash. But the Matildas are not in competition with Freeman anyway, instead standing alongside her, building on her achievements and blazing the trail for those that will one day surpass them.
And as for if that moment, record-breaking or not, will be marked with a victory or defeat? Agony or ecstasy? Only the gods know for now.