Attending the England v Denmark match last night, you could’ve been fooled into believing the game was being played in London or Copenhagen, with a sea of red and white shirts eagerly gathering around the stadium gate.
But it was a beautifully warm winter's night, probably the only clue that you were not in Europe. We were lucky enough to watch some of the world's best footballers battle it out for 90 minutes, here in Sydney, Australia for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023™.
The atmosphere was electric even before entering the Sydney Football Ground with the streets of Surry Hills filled with England and Denmark fans ready to cheer on their nation’s side.
But with the likes of Lauren James, Lucy Bronze, Keira Walsh, Alex Greenwood, Katrine Veje and Pernille Harder, just to name a few, playing on our front doorstep, it wasn’t just the playing country’s native fans in attendance. Neutral football fans and local Sydneysiders were excited about the opportunity to watch some of their favourite international players in action.
Gladesville Ravens Women’s NPL New South Wales Head Physiotherapist, Caitlin Skillicorn was no different, standing eagerly watching the traffic rush past her as she waited for her sisters to arrive for what was to be a thrilling game between two top European teams.
Despite her sisters not being the biggest football fans, they too couldn’t think of a better way to spend their night.
“I’m watching it with my sisters, trying to get them involved, they’re not really sporty but they’re keen to watch the game and what else what you be rather doing on a Friday night?” Skillicorn said.
“I just asked if they wanted to go, I didn’t really need to coax them or anything, they were keen to come.”
Skillicorn first fell in love with the game of football whilst playing it growing up, however, an all too common ACL injury meant she turned her focus onto fixing other people’s injuries instead. The job has kept her busy and unable to attend any earlier games but jumped at the chance to see this game live and hopes that it is well worth the wait.
“I couldn’t get to any other group stages but when I saw England and Denmark I thought that’s not a bad game to go to so I quickly bought a few tickets.
“I’m excited to watch England play especially, which I’m sure many other fans here are. It’s so exciting to have a World Cup on here in Australia and for so many young girls and boys to be inspired to get involved in the game and see all these great players play live.”
And they didn’t disappoint.
Within the first 10 minutes, we knew what we were going to get for the rest of the game, there were crunching tackles, important 1v1 battles all over the field, bicycle attempts and a terrific Lauren James goal.
The Chelsea forward somehow found space to turn at the top of the box before gliding a perfectly curled right-footed strike into the side netting beating the outstretched body of Lene Christensen. It was her first World Cup goal and England’s first open-field goal since February.
She was a threat anytime she got on the ball either inverting inside as a midfielder or receiving the ball wide on the left wing and looking to cut back on her right to deliver or drive inside at the Danish defence.
Every touch, tackle and turn that followed earned James and her teammates ooo’s and ahh’s from the packed-out crowd.
Despite dominating possession of the ball in the first half, Denmark had their chances against the 2022 European Champions, looking to exploit them on the counter-attack after they’d committed so many numbers forward.
There was a small turning point towards the end of first half with a stretcher being called for Kiera Walsh after she went down with an apparent knee injury as her teammates stood anxious by as she was carried off and subbed out of the game. It’s another devastating blow for the Lionesses with Beth Mead, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby all missing out on the World Cup with injuries of their own.
Denmark were able to wrestle back a bit of momentum in the remaining time, Janni Thomson continued to create more chances, whilst Pernille Harder remained a danger for England up top.
Despite going into half time 1-0, Denmark came out how they finished the first half and looked to wrestle back possession. They came close a few times, almost captalising on a rare defensive msitake from Millie Bright and a cross-shot from Katrine Veje having Mary Earps back tracking toward goal and having to one-hand parry the ball away for a corner.
Still pushing for the equaliser, their best chance of the night came in the last few minutes of regular time. Again it was Veje with a ball into the box, this time finding the head of Amalie Vangsgaard, only for her header to agonisingly rattle into the side post and away from goal.
It leaves Denmark with their first defeat of the tournament and England with their second 1-0 win in as many games, whilst the Lioness fans stand up to sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the crowd, and all those impartial fans joining in just because lets face it, it’s a great song, and like advertised it was a very entertaining game full of world class talent.
Seeing these types of highly technical players and tactical teams play live is quite a rarity, the Matildas play other teams from the Asia Region (AFC) almost twice as much as those from Europe (UEFA), and playing well over two-thirds of their games away in other countries.
The only option is to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and tune into them playing for their club teams, but even then it’s not the same as witnessing them from the stands.
The timely runs we don’t see through the broadcast camera, their movement off the ball that allows them to find space, the difficulty of skill that can’t be measured through a screen, the emotion and atmosphere that they create can only be truly appreciated by watching live. It’s something we can’t take for granted and with over 40,000 in the crowd some people definitely think the same.
It doesn’t help that competitions like the Women's Super League, Frauen-Bundesliga and Primera Iberdrola all coincide with Women’s A-League fixtures, meaning we have seen fewer European players playing in Australia in recent times.
But it also means that it doesn’t happen at all, starting Denmark striker, Rikke Madsen was an injury replacement player for Melbourne Victory just last season where she made seven appearances whilst on loan.
We’ve also seen plenty of players from the National Women’s Soccer League whose seasons have historically run at opposite times of the year, allowing many American players to play both within the calendar year. It allowed us to watch a boastful of world-class players in the A-League over the last decade including current US Women’s National Team players playing at this World Cup such as Lynn Williams, Emily Sonnett, Sofia Huerta, Megan Rapinoe and Kristie Mewis.
The Women’s A-League has been extended to include a full home-and-away season, but it means it might be a while until we see the same players on our shores, so we better cherish every moment now as it’ll be a while until we get the same chance again.