Steph Catley knows what kind of impact hosting the Women’s Euros had in England. She felt it first hand, walking around the streets of London bathed in the afterglow of the Lionesses’ triumph. The Matildas defender saw the effect it had on the lives of Arsenal teammates such as Beth Mead and Leah Williamson. “They’re superheroes on another level to the young girls over here,” Catley says. “They can’t walk down the street without being recognised”.
Most of all, she has lived it, playing for Arsenal in an extra-time defeat to Wolfsburg in the Champions League semi-final in front of 60,063 fans at Emirates Stadium – 58,657 more than the last time the Gunners hosted a European semi and an attendance that set a new record for women’s club football in the UK.
Now, it’s the turn of her homeland. The 2023 Women’s World Cup, the biggest sporting event Australia has seen since the 2000 Olympics, is now just a month away.
The tournament has become a shining beacon on the hill Down Under ever since Fifa president Gianni Infantino declared the “As One” joint bid with New Zealand successful, a kind of cure-all for the ills of the game and the potion that will lift it to new heights, often with not a lot of detail beyond that.
Participation numbers amongst young girls are expected to explode on the way to a 50-50 gender split. The A-League Women’s competition is hoping the World Cup will supercharge public interest and crowds for the coming season – the first in which it will play a full home-and-away fixture. A legacy in facilities at both the elite level and on the ground in communities, where there is a critical lack of female-friendly spaces, is targeted. So too a legacy of women’s leadership in refereeing, coaching and administration.
“If you think about that kind of hype, you can’t say it’s not true because if you look at what happened with England and the Euros,” Catley says. “That’s proof. If you do well at a major tournament that you’re hosting, the effects and the ripple of that can be huge. If you look at the WSL the crowd sizes, the investment… it’s gone through the roof since [the Euros] and grassroots is benefiting from that. There is that pressure and there is definitely an understanding that our success could have an incredibly big impact on women’s football in Australia and football in general in Australia.”
For Catley and her teammates, this puts them in an awkward, almost contradictory position. There is the ubiquitous instinct of any elite team to contain any sense of excitement and maintain all focus on the task at hand, but at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the impact the tournament could have.
“I know that’s kind of a boring answer to hear but it really is for us so important just to go game by game,” Catley says. “There’s no point really in thinking too far ahead because we’re not there yet. Sometimes you can think too far ahead and that means you’re not focused on the moment.”
Yet hosting the World Cup in Australia represents the capstone of generations of work by countless, often unsung and under-appreciated women’s pioneers. The Matildas have been at the forefront of a movement that has put women’s football into the public eye and dragged administrators and officials towards understanding its importance. It is why there was such excitement when Infantino announced the bid had been successful; Catley, who provided that evening’s defining image as she leapt into the arms of Lydia Williams and Alanna Kenndy, described it as a match-winning feeling.
“As a team, we’ve always gotten better from having that sort of responsibility,” Catley says. “I don’t think we’ve ever shied away from it. We’re the ones that have fought for pay equality, we’re the ones that have gone through the hard times and worked for what we’ve got. So for this to be in front of us, football is our main focus, but we are definitely aware that it could have a massive impact on the rest of Australian football. I think that definitely drives us and helps us.”
But for all the talk of the legacy the Women’s Euros left on England and how it is now Australia’s turn, there was another aspect to it all. Not only did the Lionesses host that tournament, they won it. It adds a heightened pressure for a team already shouldering so much.
“You can almost say confidently that actually winning it created a buzz that is unlike anything else,” Catley says. “For us, you see that and you go ‘100% I want to do that for our country’. Not trying to think too far ahead, one game at a time, but yeah, you couldn’t think of doing anything better for your country than winning a World Cup on home soil.”