Australia, Gritty Then Giddy, Moves on to the World Cup Semifinals

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Australia, a sports-mad nation, can stick with the Matildas as they carry on at the World Cup.

BRISBANE, Australia – The penalties that ended the ruthlessly tense World Cup quarterfinal between Australia and France on Saturday night spun themselves into some inhumane ghoul. They hogged eternal attention and ample space in future memory banks. They overshadowed the 120-plus scoreless but contentious minutes that preceded them. They danced like some debased wretch upon the nerve endings of Australia-heavy 49,461 spectators. They refused to quit so that everybody could do what everybody would have felt ready to do, which was to go to sleep.

They lasted 10 rounds and 20 kicks. They ended 7-6 to Australia in case anyone could process that, which no one could. They harrumphed with two occasions when an Australian player could have clinched the match by converting, but didn’t, leaving the crowd to make the sound of teetering above horror, and three when a French goalkeeper could have clinched by saving, but didn’t, leaving the crowd to make the sound of teetering above wonder. They got so sadistic that they managed to include Australia goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold taking a penalty herself – in the fifth round, yeah, fifth round – then smacking the right post and having to go back to her job trying to stop others. They found room in their quiver of hell for a moment when Arnold made a save on France’s Kenza Dali in the ninth round, then Dali walked away despondently, then a video review showed Arnold off the line, then Dali returned, then Arnold saved on Dali again.

They howled again just then, though.

Australia’s Clare Hunt went left-middle.

France goalkeeper Solene Durand, inserted only in the 120th minute for penalty prowess, made an absurd save with her trailing left hand.

Carry on.

“Penalties is just, it’s such a – I hate penalties,” the Australian superstar Sam Kerr said, and she won.

These deathless penalties carried on until they left France’s Kadidiatou Diani doubled over in an agony neither she nor anyone else would deserve. They dashed France’s realistic chance at a first women’s World Cup title and sent it home with all its quality. They bulldozed pretty much everything that came before them on Saturday, including a day in Brisbane full of anticipation and frenzy and crowded pubs that included people who brought drums.

So they had their grudging courtesies. They left Brisbane Stadium in a goose-bump boom while the public address played Men at Work’s “Down Under,” availing all to hear again of buying bread from a man in Brussels. (He was 6-foot-4, and full of muscles.) They allowed Australia to a first-ever World Cup semifinal four years after abysmal penalties shooed it home from France, and they allowed the sports adoring Australian nation to continue with its high noise and higher TV ratings for its wildly and widely adored Matildas. And they feted a greenhorn, which was kind of them, at least.

In the role of 10th penalty taker, a role seldom used in human life, here came Cortnee Vine, 25 years old, speedy substitute from the 104th minute.

“Imagine standing in that circle as a World Cup debutante,” Australia Manager Tony Gustavsson said.

“I have not,” Vine said about previously taking a penalty to win a match. “I have not.”

“Look at her body language,” Gustavsson said. “It looks like she wasn’t even disturbed.”

“I know where I’m going (with the kick),” Vine said. “‘Let’s just hit it.’ And we hit it.”

“Very, very impressive,” Gustavsson said.

Vine hit it right as Solène Durand guessed the opposite, and she pumped her first gently and began running left, where she welcomed the giddy blob of sprinting Australia teammates who swarmed her with hugs and plaudits like, “We’re proud of you.”

“I thought I was in a whirlwind,” Vine said.

“I will remember this for the rest of my life for sure,” Arnold said, and that’s the thing. She’ll remember the saves on Selma Bacha in the first round of penalties (dive to right, block), and on Ève Périsset in the fifth round (guessed accurately, ball hit left post), and on Dali in the ninth round (dove left, blocked, overruled, dove left again, blocked again), and on the outstanding French substitute 19-year-old Vicki Bècho in the 10th round (got it completely wrong, but Bècho pulled it to the left post).

How many will remember, in the face of those narcisstic penalties, that France defender Élisa De Almeida sprawled in the goal mouth for a remarkable save of a point-black whip from Mary Fowler, the 20-year-old Australian wunderkind? How many will remember how France mastered the first half, Australia the second? How about how a roar went up when Kerr stood up, her calf injury healed enough after three missed games for a second straight game as a substitute, this time in the 55th minute? Remember how the energy of the game changed right there, how Kerr altered the entire pitch and the entire contingent playing upon it, how she seemed to have almost gravitational pull with her fresh legs churning and defenders chasing? Maybe.

Remember how that waned as the French adjusted and Kerr tired from the quick trip from cold muscles to hot – “I don’t envy people who are super-subs,” she said – or how France appeared to go ahead 1-0 in the 100th minute on a corner and an own goal off Australia’s Alanna Kennedy, until referee Maria Carvajal waved it off quickly, having spotted the longtime France defender Wendie Renard yanking on Caitlin Foord’s shirt?

Maybe not.

Memory banks will go crammed with how Renard and Eugénie Le Sommer, the French mainstays, aced their penalties (third and fourth rounds). They’ll save room for where Kerr eased in hers (third round) after walking up there thinking of how she skied it last World Cup because “I probably tried to do something I wasn’t used to.” They’ll remember how Fowler banged in hers at age 20 as if she were 30. Australian memories, if precise, will make space for Katrina Gorry, Tameka Yallop and Ellie Carpenter, with Yallop a 116th-minute substitute, because all three of them took the role you wouldn’t wish even on some jerks, that of saving Australia when a save would have killed it. They might know, as well, how Gustavsson said to his players before the dreaded penalties, “Trust me when I say you’re prepared for this moment.”

Then no one on Earth was prepared for that moment, and moment, and moment.

“I’m just shocked and awed,” Kerr said.

“I’m still processing,” Arnold said. “It’s going to take a long time to realize what has happened and what I’ve done and what the team has done. I’m just proud to be Australian.”

Then Gustavsson concluded the mad night by saying madly, of such drama, “It makes you feel alive.”

Does it?

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
France goalkeeper Solène Durand watches as Australia celebrates.