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Australian fans heartbroken but proud after agonising World Cup exit

The buoyant mood across Australia abruptly burst on Wednesday when the nation was knocked out in the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup by archrivals England.

Heartbroken Matildas fans insisted that, while they were devastated by the 3-1 defeat, they remained staunchly proud of the over-achieving Australian team.

“I’m still proud of the girls. They always show a never-say-die attitude,” said Gemma Ritchie, 26, who works in the music industry.

“And even though they didn’t get the result, just making it this far, it’s still a monumental night for women’s sport in Australia.”

The Matilda’s run to the World Cup semi-finals has captivated the rugby- and cricket-mad country, setting TV records, selling out merchandise, and fuelling talks of a public holiday if they went all the way.

Children at Sydney’s primary schools were encouraged to wear green and gold ahead of the clash, practising penalty shootouts during lunch breaks and sports lessons.

A capacity crowd of some 80,000 packed Stadium Australia in Sydney, while tens of thousands more crammed into fan sites at neighbourhood parks and sporting ovals.

– ‘Mammoth effort’ –

“It’s a huge disappointment,” said 28-year-old office worker Costa Xarras, who watched from a fan site at Moore Park, next door to the famed Sydney Cricket Ground.

“But I’m also so proud of their mammoth effort — both what they have achieved for Australia, and what they have done for women’s football.”

Newspapers and local media fanned the flames in the build-up to the match, with one Sydney tabloid even chartering a helicopter to spy on the England squad’s final preparations.

“Matildas poised to put Old Enemy to the sword,” The Daily Telegraph said on its front page, having renamed itself The Daily Tillygraph for the day in honour of the Matildas.

In response, The Sun tabloid newspaper in England ran a story saying: “The cheating Aussies were up to their old tricks yesterday.”

As European champions and the highest-ranked team left at the tournament, Sarina Wiegman’s England would normally have been clear favourites for the clash.

But the Matilda’s received a major boost playing in front of the boisterous crowd at the imposing Stadium Australia.

While Australian supporters dominated city pubs in the build-up to the game, there was a sizeable contingent of expat Brits — the country’s largest migrant community.

England fans watching from Moore Park sang “It’s coming home” as miserable Australians poured onto the streets after the final whistle.

There was a sense of anticipation hours before kickoff and plenty of people were sporting the Australian team’s yellow jerseys, which have become a hot commodity after repeatedly selling out in sports stores.

Attention will now turn to capitalising on the momentum generated by the tournament — co-hosted with New Zealand — and using it to spark a sustained interest in women’s sport.

Julie Dolan was the first captain of the Matildas, in 1979, and told AFP: “Every time I walk outside someone stops me and talks about women’s football. It’s unbelievable.

“The Matildas in particular have set this benchmark now, so for any future Matildas, we know where that’s at.”