From World Cup knock-out games to Olympic penalty shootouts, Matildas vice-captain Steph Catley knows better than most what a high-pressure moment feels like. But nothing prepared her for the hours leading up to last Friday, when Fifa president Gianni Infantino announced Australia and New Zealand had won the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
“It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever been through in my life,” Catley tells Guardian Australia. “It was so tense. We were in there for about an hour – I lost track of time, it felt like longer – and a few times it seemed like he was going to announce who won, but then he didn’t and it went on a bit longer, so it was quite a painful experience but in the end, it was so worth it. I feel like my shoulders are finally relaxed after months of being tense.”
In the video from inside Football Federation Australia headquarters that captures the moment of the announcement – and has so far generated over half a million views across all social media platforms – one of the most memorable images is of Catley and her Matildas teammates, dressed in green and gold, leaping from their chairs in wild celebration.
“There weren’t many coherent thoughts,” Catley says of the moment. “It was just emotion; I was jumping on people. I was just so excited and, to be honest, so relieved. Once it slowed down, I started picturing myself playing at a home World Cup, the Matildas, sold-out crowds, what it would feel like in front of my family and friends… it gave my goosebumps.
“Football in Australia is going to be changed forever because of this. It’s already made so much progress, but this is the biggest tournament in the world. The best players in women’s world football are going to be here and I think it’s going to inspire so many boys and girls to want to play.
“There’s a lot of competition in Australia for different sports and football has always been one that’s kind of struggled, but I think this is going to change that, definitely.”
As the W-League’s League’s fan ambassador, Catley is especially optimistic what hosting the 2023 tournament will mean for Australia’s top domestic women’s league. With rumours around club expansion, a full home-and-away season and academy teams swirling for several months, Catley believes the interest generated by hosting a Women’s World Cup on home soil could accelerate the league’s plans.
“More players will want to play here. That increases depth and that means more quality players in the W-League that are Australian, which leads into the Matildas. International players wanting to come and play here once they see what Australia and New Zealand are like. It’s definitely going to help things in the W-League.
“You would hope our league’s up there with one of the best in the world eventually and [becoming] full-time professional. That’s the aim for every league, isn’t it?”
New Zealand player Rebekah Stott agrees. “It’ll have a huge impact,” she says. “I think it will shine a light onto the W-League and attract more players.”
Hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup is a special boost for domestic women’s football in New Zealand, with A-League club Wellington Phoenix announcing plans earlier this month to pursue their first W-League licence.
“I think it’s a great idea if they can get it off the ground,” Stott says of the prospect of New Zealand’s first professional women’s club team. “It would work so well and help New Zealand women’s football grow. A lot of the girls go off to college [in the US] as well, so I think a [Phoenix] W-League team would give them that alternative to stay playing professional football here.”
All eyes now turn to FFA and the choices they make regarding the W-League, which is anticipated to kick off the 2020-21 season around its usual October-November window.
With the second-biggest sporting tournament on the planet now firmly on the horizon, the league is in an enviable position within the domestic women’s football landscape: one of the most visible platforms and pathways for emerging and established players hoping to see their names on that World Cup squad list in three years’ time.
So while the pressure of the bid is now in the past, a new type of pressure is beginning to build: how to capitalise on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If the W-League’s decision-makers are as buoyed by ambition as its players are, it could cement itself as one of the world’s best domestic women’s competitions and set Australian and New Zealand football generally on a brand-new course.