AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — There will be a first-time winner of the Women’s World Cup this year, and maybe, just maybe, it will be host country Australia.
The Matildas, serving as co-hosts of the tournament with New Zealand, became the first home team since the United States in 1999 to win a quarterfina l in nine Women’s World Cups. Australia has reached its first semifinal in team history and faces England on Wednesday for a chance to play for the title.
“I genuinely really believe that this team can do great history in so many ways,” Australia coach Tony Gustavsson said, “not just winning football games, but the way that they can inspire the next generation, how they can unite the nation, how they can leave a legacy that is much bigger that football.”
England, the European champion, advanced with a 2-1 victory over upstart Colombia. England also reached the semifinals in 2015 and 2019, only to finish third and fourth and never reach the Women’s World Cup final.
But before the Australia and England showdown, first-time semifinalist Spain takes on powerhouse Sweden on Tuesday in Auckland.
Aside from a 4-0 loss to Japan in group play, Spain has been a force throughout the tournament. It even tuned out an earthquake roughly an hour before its quarterfinal win over 2019 runner-up Netherlands.
The earthquake Friday in New Zealand’s capital of Wellington measured 5.6 on the Richter scale and created minor shaking in and around the stadium.
“We were so concentrated on the game that we didn’t feel it, although we felt some shakes at the hotel the day before,” Spain coach Jorge Vilda said. “The victory of Spain was the earthquake.”
Sweden, meanwhile, is the highest ranked team still in the tournament at second in the world, according to FIFA. The Swedes got into the semifinals by knocking off previously undefeated Japan, the 2011 winners and last remaining champions in the tournament after so many early eliminations of the best teams in women’s soccer.
“I think we have the team to go all the way,” left back Jonna Andersson said, “and now we are one step closer.”
The Matildas advanced after a tense — and electric — penalty shootout 7-6 over France in front of a sold-out crowd in Brisbane, Australia.
It took 20 penalties to decide the winner in the longest shootout in the history of the tournament. It was the game of a lifetime for goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold, who stepped up to take a penalty with the score at 3-3 but hit the post.
Arnold then managed to twice save shots from French midfielder Kenza Dali, the first being waved off after Arnold was ruled to have come off her line for the first save. Arnold said she was “incredibly disappointed” to have missed her shot on goal and thanked her teammates for keeping the Matildas in the game.
Australia, at 12th in the world, is the lowest-ranked team remaining in the tournament.
Sam Kerr, the injured superstar who missed all of group play, came off the bench against France but ended up playing nearly a full game when the match went to extra time. Kerr converted her penalty kick. And the Australians have also been boosted by the play of 20-year-old Mary Fowler, who has stepped in to fill Kerr’s void in this tournament.
Arnold said the Matildas need a day to regroup before focusing on England.
“I don’t want to ever get ahead of myself, and we’re all the same in that aspect,” she said. “We just take one game at a time, one half at a time, whatever that is, and we just keep getting to the next step every time. So now that we’ve made the semifinal for the first time, we’ll take a moment to process what we’ve actually done.”
England very much wants to add a World Cup title to last year’s European championship, and coach Sarina Wiegman understands the Lionesses will have their hands full in a semifinal that will be a home game for Australia.
Wiegman’s only loss as England manager in 37 matches was a 2-0 loss to Australia in a friendly four months ago. Now in the semifinals for a third consecutive World Cup, England must beat the home team to advance to its first final.
“It’s going to be really big,” Wiegman said of the semifinal. “It’s probably going to be bigger than I imagined now. I’ll talk to my players and staff and see what that rivalry is. We’ve had such a warm welcome and we’ve really enjoyed our time here in Australia. I really like the people here but that doesn’t mean there’s no rivalry. So we’ll see that Wednesday.”
England already has won in front of a hostile crowd — the 75,784 in attendance for its quarterfinal win over Colombia were mostly clad in Colombian colors — and Wiegman said “we expect a similar crowd for Australia.
“We are really looking forward to it. We know that it’s an away game,” she said. “Let’s try to (use it as) an inspiration.”
England star Lauren James will miss her second consecutive game because of a suspension for receiving a red card in the round of 16.
Sweden’s current team has been labeled the “Golden Generation” of its nation’s history of women’s soccer, but the Swedes have yet to live up to that billing on an international stage.
Now it has knocked off both the United States and Japan to reach the semifinals and a Tuesday match against Spain in Auckland. Sweden nearly won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo two years ago but lost to Canada in the final, and in the World Cup, the Swedes were runners-up in 2003 and three-time third-place finishers.
A highlight of each Sweden win has been the playing of Swedish band Abba’s songs in the stadiums after the victories, and striker Kosovare Asllani has a request for Tuesday: “I love `Lay Your Love on Me,’” she said.
“It’s so nice when you hear the Abba songs after the game. You can’t help but smile,” she said. “I’m just very proud of the team performance but we’re not satisfied here. Obviously want to go all the way.”
Spain was the first team to secure a spot in the semifinals with a 2-1 win over 2019 runner-up Netherlands in extra time of the quarterfinals.
Just making it to the quarterfinals was a boost for Spain, ranked seventh in the world but had never before advanced to the quarterfinals in its two previous World Cup appearances. But in their third tournament, La Roja have been fantastic.
Spain blew through its first two games of group play before suffering a humiliating 4-0 loss to Japan in the finale. Vilda made a batch of lineup changes for the knockout round, which led to a 5-1 win over Switzerland, and then the quarterfinal upset over the Dutch.
It put Spain on course for a rematch with the Japanese, but they were upset in the second semifinal by Sweden and La Roja now faces the third-ranked team in the world on Tuesday at Eden Park in Auckland.
“We’ve reached somewhere we’ve never reached before, and done it playing a good game as well, with a team that is convinced that we can go even further,” Vilda said. “The rival that we meet and face in the semifinals, it will be one of the best teams in the world.”
Spain and Sweden have never met in the World Cup — Spain didn’t even qualify for the first six tournaments — but played to a 1-1 draw last October in a friendly in Cordoba, Spain.
This story has been corrected to show that England star Lauren James was suspended for receiving a red card in the round of 16, not the quarterfinals.
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