From a nude calendar to 4 million viewers: The epic rise of the Matildas.

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The Matildas' victory over France at the World Cup has become Australia's biggest sporting event in the past two decades.

Saturday night’s quarterfinal had an average audience of 4.17 million, making it Australia's most-watched sports event since Cathy Freeman won at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

The ratings peaked at 7.2 million during the penalty shootout, which means that more than 25 per cent of Australia's population tuned in to cheer for the gals.

The Matildas have defied the odds and secured what no other Australian soccer team – of any gender — ever has before: a spot in the FIFA World Cup semi-final.

Basically, the Matildas are sporting gods right now  –  but it wasn't always this way.

The origin of the Matildas' name.

The Matildas came from humble beginnings in October 1979, as 11 Australian women hit the football pitch in the Sydney suburb of Miranda. They continued to play throughout the 1980s but the sport didn't hit its stride until the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991 – although Australia did not qualify.

During these foundational years, the women's team was still considered somehow 'less than' the Socceroos men's team, with their games receiving no media coverage and significantly smaller crowds.

In fact, for years, the team's nickname was simply the 'female Socceroos'. They were only given a proper name in 1995 after the team qualified for their first World Cup.


In an attempt to boost their following and gain sponsorship for the team, SBS conducted a poll through its On the Ball football segment during which listeners called in to vote between five options: the Soccertoos, Waratahs, Lorrikeets, Blue Flyers and, of course, the Matildas.

We all know which name was chosen – one that came from the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982, which featured a winking kangaroo mascot with fluttering eyelashes named Matilda.

The calendar controversy.

Armed with a new team name, the squad still had trouble finding financial backing and public support. The need to drum up more buzz around what they were doing led to the idea to do a black-and-white nude calendar in 1999, to be released in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Twelve of the players agreed to pose for the calendar – but the move didn't come without backlash.

Player Sacha Wainwright made waves for refusing to take part. "I ended up in New Idea as the girl who said no," she told Fairfax in 2019.

"My thinking about it was that I wanted women to be recognised as athletes, and over-sexualising sport was something that didn't sit well with me."

Heather Reid was on the board of the Australian Women's Football Association at the time and has since said that the finished calendar was raunchier than expected.

"When the final images were released, nobody really expected it to be so, I was just totally shocked. It was so in your face," she reflected to Fairfax.


"It's full-frontal nudity and that was one thing that certain members on the board were not really expecting."

While doing calendars to raise funds for either a sporting club or charity was commonplace in the '90s, the fact that the female athletes had to remove their clothes in order to get attention as a sporting team was an issue for many. 

"I was personally very uncomfortable with the whole concept; I was not a fan of using sex to sell sport, and all the gender politics associated with the initiative," Reid told ABC Sport.

"There had been men's AFL calendars as well, and that's what was put to us: men are doing these things, why can't the women do it? My point was, the men are recognised as athletes first and they're using the 'sex sells' angle to get greater promotion.

"Whereas we were flipping that around in saying the performance isn't being recognised, so we need to take the clothes off." 

Despite the criticism, the calendar was a huge success. The first edition was meant to publish 5,000 copies but that number was increased to 45,000 based on public interest. The calendar sold out within weeks, prompting a second edition to be published due to the demand.

"It changed the world for the Matildas," Reid told the ABC.

"The name 'Matildas' came in before the World Cup in 1995, but it never really got any traction locally, nationally, or internationally until the release of the calendar. It just went viral."


The Matildas come into their own. 

Thankfully for the team, this was the last time they would need to get their kits off to win fans and financing. They were winning games – and lots of them – and people we finally giving them the attention they deserved. 

After missing out on the FIFA Women’s World Cup in China in 1991, the team has since qualified for every subsequent World Cup since. They also qualified for the Olympics in 2000 and 2004. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the team even made the quarterfinals but were ultimately beaten by Brazil.

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the team just missed out on a medal, placing fourth. This followed a historic performance at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which saw Sam Kerr become the first Australian player, male or female, to score a hat trick at a World Cup tournament.

Endorsement deals for Kerr and the team's other high-profile players quickly followed. And 2021 saw the team lure its biggest crowd to date, with more than 36,000 turning out to watch the Matildas play at Accor Stadium in Sydney.

The struggle to overcome gender stereotypes in sport.

Current player Ellie Carpenter has spoken about how the state of sport has changed since she was a junior player growing up in regional New South Wales.

“When I was growing up, I was with a boys’ team, I didn’t have a girls’ team,” Carpenter told the press after the 2-0 win over Denmark on August 7.

“I went and watched the Matildas play when I was 12 years old, and I think there was 300 people in the stadium, but that still wanted me to play for Australia.


“I still was dreaming to play on that pitch with the girls, and I think now, if I was a 12-year-old in Stadium Australia watching sold-out crowds – like, how amazing that is for them, young girls, young boys to see that? How far we’ve come is just unimaginable.”

Kerr experienced a similar upbringing in East Fremantle in Western Australia, playing for the boys' team and keeping her gender a secret by wearing her hair shorter.

The player eventually had to drop out of the team after getting too roughed up on the field. “One day, I came home from a game with yet another black eye and bloody lip, and that’s when my dad and brother both said, ‘Nup, this isn’t happening anymore,'" she wrote in her book, My Journey to the World Cup.

“They said they were sorry, but that I wasn’t allowed to play football anymore. I understood the reasons why, but I was heartbroken. Back then, there were no girls’ teams in my area for me to join, and to know that I’d never play a sport that I loved so much ever again was devastating.”

Kerr would go on to start with the Matildas as a sub at 15 years old, and by 2019, she was named the team's captain. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

Feature image: Getty.

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