The Sydney 2000 Olympics were a landmark moment for Australian sport and also for the Westfield Matildas. Kate McShea, Julie Murray, Alison Forman, Dianne Alagich and Sharon Black shared their memories of an unforgettable time.
“Do you guys remember the Wednesday night games?” Kate McShea asks via Zoom from her home in Singleton, north of Newcastle.
Julie Murray tilts her head back in faux exasperation before laughing and launching into a tune. The memories come flooding back.
“Chris Tanzey didn’t want us to be over-awed when we got to a big tournament,” McShea explains, “so we used to play on Wednesday night, every night, and walk out to the FIFA anthem. Then we’d have to stand up and line up and sing the national anthem.
But then he took it one step further and put a crowd noise on, because he’s like, ‘if we’re playing in front of 35,000 people, you’re not going to be able to hear each other, so we need to train for this!’
“So there used to be this [crackling noise] that went on the whole game. And he was on the roof of the shed trying to yell, ‘what are you doing!?’ but we couldn’t hear him over the crowd noise. So we’d just be on the field going, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying’ and looking at each other through this crazy crowd noise on!”
The others in the chat – Alison Forman, Dianne Alagich, and Sharon Black – burst out laughing.
They’ve been brought together by matildas.com.au as to recollect their Football Stories, looking back at some of the Westfield Matildas’ most memorable moments.
This week, it will be 20 years since Australia took part in the historic Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, when the Westfield Matildas announced themselves to the country. It was also the first time the women's national team would appear at prestigous event.
As hosts, Australia automatically qualified for every Olympic event, including the football tournament.
In preparation, the Westfield Matildas were provide with scholarships to the Australian Institute of Sport. It would be the first time the team would be full time as they trained almost daily in Canberra, taking trips out to various cities and towns for other preparations.
“Remember Thredbo?” McShea asks.
“I’m not telling Thredbo,” Murray responds with a sly laugh.
“We were preparing for the Opening Ceremony,” Alagich reminds them, “and we had to walk around, and I think Ali [Forman] or [Sharon] Blackie, you guys brought your pillows.”
“And we also had to go and watch the Brumbies play in minus-1000 degrees,” Murray recalls, “because that’s the kind of crowd we were gonna get. We got there and it was crickets, and we’re like ‘this is not like a football match.’ And I’m pretty sure someone snuck in a bevvie.”
Safe to say that the Opening Ceremony itself, held at Stadium Australia in Sydney, was not like those freezing-cold walks around Thredbo.
“One of the biggest memories for me was walking into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony and there was a roar – I still get goosebumps now just talking about it – a roar like you’ll never hear in your life,” McShea said.
You just beamed with pride. It’s a feeling you never forget and one you’ll probably never get again, and to do it with this bunch of girls was just amazing.”
“I remember I was walking with P.C. [Peita-Claire Hepperlin] and Kel [Kelly Golebiowski],” Alagich says, “and we were just floating around the stadium, and then we got grabbed by a guy who was working at the A.I.S. who was a volunteer. The volunteers were standing all around the oval holding hands, and he grabs us and says, ‘stay here, you’re going to be right in front of the flame!’
“We were just young kids so we were like ‘wow, okay, this is the most amazing experience of my life.’ Then I think P.C. goes, ‘oh, there’s Cathy Freeman!’ And we were like, ‘that’s weird,’ because she was in some weird outfit.
“And everyone was like ‘there’s Cathy! She’s going to light the flame!’ and we were like, ‘oh my god! We’re right in front of the cauldron!’ Then when she lit it, I was like, ‘I saw her! I knew she was going to light it before she lit it!’
"If only I had my phone back in the day. That was confiscated.”
“You were just so in-the-moment; it was so exhilarating,” Forman says. “It was surreal, you can’t even really describe it. You’re with the people that you love – your team-mates and some other athletes you’ve spent a fair bit of time with – and you’re just grabbing each other and yelling. It’s so intense. Then you can’t sleep.”
“Lucky we went to Thredbo and practiced, because it was exactly the same,” McShea quips. “We were prepared.”
Football is a unique event in the Olympics in that its length means the first game must kick off before the Opening Ceremony itself if all the matches are to be played by the Games’ end. And the Westfield Matildas couldn’t have been met with a tougher first opponent: Germany.
“We couldn’t be more prepared,” Alagich says. “We trained together every day, six or seven days a week. I felt, as a team, we did the best we possibly could. Even with the three-nil [loss], we felt confident we could still go on and do okay in the tournament.
“It was definitely an upset because obviously the first game was before the Opening Ceremony, so there was a lot more pressure around that game for us. And it’s the opening game of a home Olympics; you can’t get more of a pressure situation than that. [But] I can’t remember any of the game, to be honest – it’s a blur!”
“When you look at the Germans, they were powerhouses for years and played in existing competitions at higher intensity,” Murray says.
“So that’s where you find there’s a marked difference with today’s Matildas: they play in those same competitions, they’re playing at a high intensity in the US, in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark or wherever it might be, where we probably weren’t up to the intensity over the entire 90 minutes. It doesn’t mean we weren’t mentally or technically capable at all; that’s where the game has progressed over the last 20-odd years.”
After losing 3-0 to Germany, Australia then drew 1-1 with Sweden and narrowly lost 2-1 to Brazil, both at the Sydney Football Stadium. In total, over 85,000 people showed up to watch the Westfield Matildas in their three group games; the highest attendance for Australian women’s football matches that had been recorded until recently.
“We talk about the games and obviously some of us had played in a World Cup in front of huge crowds, but to walk out onto the Sydney Football Stadium in front of however many fans and to sing the national anthem along with them and show them what we could produce as a team, they probably had no idea,” Black says.
Some of the people who came to the game probably didn’t know much about women’s football or the standard and I think they probably went away thinking, ‘wow, these players can play.’ I guess for me that was the best thing […] that was maybe the beginning of having a bit more impact in the media and even more girls playing football.”
“We left a mark,” Forman says. “We left a definite difference in standard from the 2000 Olympics onward.
"We set a standard – yeah, we didn’t go through to the next round – but we actually did prove we could compete, we could score goals. We set a kind of standard that you could move forward from [in] that tournament.”
For these former players, some of their most treasured football moments were made during the Sydney 2000 Olympics – a reminder that football can play a much bigger role in our lives than we might expect.
“One of my most memorable moments ever – and I wasn’t even playing – was after the Brazil match with Sunni [Hughes, who scored Australia’s goal],” Murray says. “I just ran up to her and I hugged her and I said, ‘you just scored the most amazing goal. I’m so proud of you. I couldn’t be more proud of you.’ That’s what my football is about, and I would say the exact same thing to the players before the game.”
“That moment was just amazing,” Forman adds. “That kind of goal – she’s a Northie girl, I grew up with Sunni playing football in Northern New South Wales – and that moment wasn’t about me; it was about us. It was about her achievement and what she did, but it was about us. That’s what we were all about.”