Sam Kerr has the ball in the net and a protest on her lips. She’s buried it before anybody on the field can take a breath, but not before the referee has blown her whistle. An interference off the ball, it was adjudged, a mere half-second after Steph Catley took the free kick that her captain caught on the volley. It is two minutes before half-time and Australia do not want to break now.
Minutes later the Chelsea striker is on the end of another, a flicked-on header from Tameka Yallop that quivers closer to that sweet spot inside the back post than Hedvig Lindahl may have anticipated. Still, Sweden’s goalkeeper is phlegmatic, just as she had been when, some five minutes before that, Alanna Kennedy’s set piece climbed over the wall and required the same knee-jerk muscle memory she had utilised against this very team in her side’s group-stage win nine days ago.
Sweden had had the upper hand for the preceding 15 minutes, so when the whistle blows again and the players head for the bowels of Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium, Kerr makes a beeline for the officials to request an explanation. Tony Gustavsson, the Matildas manager, does the same. It might have been the axis on which this already-frenetic Olympics semi-final had turned, when Australia gained the upper hand and made a gold medal match against Canada more practically feasible than it had been at any other point in this tournament.
Instead, the pivotal moment came less than 60 seconds after everyone re-emerged – and in cruel fashion. A deflected shot from outside the box spun spitefully and bounced brutally, forcing Teagan Micah onto her heels and then into the air. Australia’s No 1 succeeded in tipping the ball onto the bar, but not a second time when the ricochet fell for Fridolina Rolfö. In the end it was the only goal, a finish that sent Tokyo 2020’s form team into the final and relegated the Matildas to a bronze medal match against the United States.
Rolfö, who scored a brace against Australia last out, had already been threatening by this point. In the 23rd minute the new Barcelona signing did not so much rattle the crossbar as chastise it. That five-inch block of aluminium was in her way, as was the chasing Caitlin Foord and the stretching Hayley Raso. The pair were almost in the perfect spot a number of times.
For the Matildas, this was a 90 minutes of almosts. Too many almost final balls, almost corners and almost defensive mistakes by their opponents. It was an almost final that has eluded this team for many years under several coaches. Still, that they had made it further than ever before was a triumph in itself, and when they meet the US again on Thursday there may be another in the offing. Even if there is not – and Australia will contest that match without one of their best in Ellie Carpenter, who was red-carded in stoppage-time – the breakthrough sets them on an encouraging path to a home 2023 World Cup.
Australia had been a work in progress and have pleasantly surprised in Tokyo. They were not supposed to beat Team GB in the quarter-finals. In this last-four encounter they were definitely not supposed to beat Sweden – the Rio 2016 silver medallists – but still dominated for lengthy spells. On the balance of play they could have done it, and, well, storylines are more fun when something a bit shocking occurs. When a protagonist is killed off before his or her time. When Ned Stark doesn’t even make it to season two and nobody can fathom what could possibly happen next. Once the initial blow subsides, the plot is suddenly full of possibility. It can go anywhere and belong to anyone.
But where one half of this departure from the expected narrative has been filled by Canada, who were not fancied to defeat the US in the other semi but did so anyway, Australia will leave Japan having never accounted for Sweden in a competitive match but coming close enough that it hurt just a little bit more.