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A Women's World Cup SF is the here and now for the Australia-England rivalry

Lauren Hemp Alessia Russo England Lauren Hemp Alessia Russo - The Canadian Press

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — This is Australia’s Matildas against England’s Lionesses. The Women’s World Cup semifinals. The here and the now.

Both teams want to be clear, it’s not one of those clashes for the Ashes that have come to represent an intense international sporting rivalry dating back to the 1800s.

That began with the burning of some bails — small wooden pegs that sit atop cricket stumps — after a team of English gentry lost to a squad of colonial upstarts from Australia.

This is about an Australia team led by superstar striker Sam Kerr — who has been injured for most of the tournament but will play some part in the game — against England defender Millie Bright and her European champions.

Kerr and Bright are teammates at Chelsea and have combined to win titles for the London-based club, but they're playing off here for a spot in the World Cup final against Spain.

England lost semifinals at the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups. Australia is into the final four for the first time, and aiming to be just the second host to win the title on home soil.

Women’s soccer has been making its own history in England, where the Lionesses’ run to the European Championship title in 2022 captured the nation’s attention. And it’s making history in Australia, where the Matildas have twice attracted crowds exceeding 75,000 in this tournament and will again on Wednesday night.

The 7-6 penalty shootout win over fifth-ranked France last Saturday in Brisbane was the highest-rating program on Australian television in 2023. Local media reported that the shootout pulled the biggest domestic audience for a sports event since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

As much as fans and the media have tried to frame it a fresh chapter in the Ashes, an England squad with a Dutch head coach and a Matildas roster with a Swedish head coach have repeatedly said their biggest rivalries in women’s soccer extend well beyond these two countries.

As soon as England had clinched a 2-1 comeback win over Colombia in the quarterfinals to ensure a match against Australia, coach Sarina Wiegman was asked what she knew about the Ashes rivalry. She said she’d check with the team and staff.

On Tuesday, at a pre-match news conference in Sydney that ran into the 21st minute of Spain's 2-1 semifinal win over Sweden in New Zealand, Wiegman said the feedback related to cricket and rugby and netball, and “we didn’t feel that rivalry that much.”

Bright said she couldn’t think of a previous England vs. Australia encounter, in any sport, sticking in her memory. What she's looking forward to is playing in front of a capacity crowd at Stadium Australia, despite knowing her opposition will have overwhelming support.

“As an England team there’s always pressure and it's something you embrace,” she said. “We've experienced moments like this, tense environments, big stadium, big crowd. We do thrive in those moments."

Bright recalled the extra lift big crowds gave England in the European Championship.

“It’s the semifinal. It’s the World Cup,” she said. “You want that environment, you want it to be intense, you want it to be noisy.”

England's only loss under Wiegman, who guided the Netherlands to the final in 2019, was against Australia in a friendly in April.

For 10th-ranked Australia, that 2-0 away win was part of a sequence that also included wins over Spain and France that boosted confidence.

While England went through the group stage with wins over Haiti, Denmark and China, and then beat Nigeria in a penalty shootout, the Australians had to rebound after losing 3-2 in the group stage and then having to beat Olympic champion Canada for a place in the knockout rounds.

The Matildas beat Canada 4-0, and then Denmark and France.

Tony Gustavsson, who was an assistant coach with the title-winning United States team in 2019, said No. 4-ranked England would probably start as the favorite with the bookmakers.

“If you look at rankings, they’re favorites. If you look at where their players play, they have starting players in top clubs and top leagues all over the world — not just 11, they have like 15, 16,” Gustavsson said. "If you look at resources financially, obviously they are a massive favorite going into this game.

“One thing that we have that they don’t have is the support and the belief from the fans," he said, "and that itself is going to be massive tomorrow.”

What Australia also has is an energized Kerr, who missed the group stage because of calf muscle injury she sustained on the eve of the tournament, and a team that has grown in stature because of her absence.

“The way she pushed through was fantastic and impressive both from a mental and physical aspect," Gustavsson said of Kerr's role as a second-half substitute against France. “She trained today, so she’s available.”

The Matildas have also played down the Ashes context of the showdown, but goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold, the star of the shootout win over France, eventually responded after a repeated line of questioning about how it might feel being knocked out by England.

“Being knocked out by anyone is kind of unthinkable,” Arnold said. “There’s probably a lot of English people that would love to see us knocked out by England, but I think there’s more Australians that would love to see England knocked out by us.”


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