The last few weeks watching the Matildas make a play for the 2023 World Cup have been harrowing. But perhaps more difficult for me personally was realising how intense supporting a sports team is on the fans. I now have a newfound respect for all of you who have loyally followed a team throughout your lives, through the highs and lows.
I’ve been a casual sports viewer throughout my life, mostly forced to endure a lot of English Premier League football while my older brother lived at home and I still maintain his indoctrinated beliefs about the superiority of Manchester United and absolute hatred of Arsenal. With my partner, I quite enjoy watching the tennis and the Tour de France each year.
But I have always felt bewildered by the commitment many Australians have to their team in whatever sport they follow and their dogged loyalty. When images of crowds moved to significant emotion during an AFL match make it to my newsfeed – people crying, shouting, exhibiting the type of feelings I would have expected reserved for funerals, births and weddings – I’m usually sceptical. Surely there are more important things to worry about than a sports game, I thought.
Well, I get it now.
My heart was beating hard for over 90 minutes watching Australia take on England in the semi-finals. I felt a little sick with each passing minute, realising there was no hope. I was down the next day, and the entire cycle repeated again watching our loss to Sweden a few days later.
If that’s how I felt after barely engaging with a team and only watching them when the hype started and their chances were confirmed, I can only imagine what the rest of you go through for entire seasons of sport, over many years, waiting on tenterhooks to find out the fate of your team.
Listening to others discussing fan behaviour over the last week, especially comparing the relatively polite crowds at the women’s football matches to the more extreme behaviour often seen at Premier League games in England, I was reminded of the importance of sport in terms of building community and providing people with a sense of hope and opportunity when they often don’t have any in their real lives. Football (and many other team sports) has been the domain of the working class at its core, and the impact a team’s success or struggles has on its community is real.
It’s easy to jump onto the Matildas’ bandwagon – the team is incredibly charismatic, it’s so exciting to see women’s sport in the limelight, and frankly, watching Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler in action is a treat. But the lows really did hit me harder than the highs.
In contrast, watching the finals of the World Cup was quite pleasant because I really didn’t care who won, and I could be entertained without any of the emotion. While I may be a converted football fan now, I would prefer to remain unattached, a dispassionate observer. I’m not sure my heart could take true commitment.