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Funny thing, fear and sport.
The loneliest walk many can imagine is from halfway to the penalty spot. The world watching, the weight of it all hinging on what happens next in the 12 yards from penalty spot to goalmouth.
The agony and ecstasy: Matildas keeper Mackenzie Arnold and France’s Selma Bacha during last Saturday’s penalty shootout.Credit: Getty/Reuters
The loneliest wait might just be in the middle of the Pacific, when a 12-foot Teahupo’o monster is tossed your way.
Forget the world, one wrong move and the weight of the Pacific Ocean could be pitching you straight into Tahitian reef.
“You can’t think about it at the time, but these massive moments, a shootout like that will stay with the girls for the rest of their lives,” John Aloisi, an expert in the football side of things and Channel Seven’s World Cup commentary, says ahead of the Matildas semi-final against England.
Aloisi, who happily conceded top spot in Australian football warm and fuzzies to Matildas’ match-winner Cortnee Vine last weekend, recalls his own 2005 fairytale – sealing the Socceroos’ historic World Cup return almost 20 years ago – with clarity.
So too though, does Italian champion Roberto “the Divine Ponytail” Baggio.
Devastation for Roberto Baggio, who missed a critical World Cup final penalty against Brazil in 1994.Credit: Getty
Fluffer of perhaps the most infamous fluffed penalty in history – Baggio sent his shot sailing over the crossbar to finish the 1994 World Cup final.
“It was the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it,” Baggio wrote in memoirs titled Una Porta Nei Cielo, which translates to “A goal in the sky”.
Twelve hours or so before the Matildas march onto Stadium Australia, the Tahiti Pro is set to resume at Teahupo’o after a couple of lay days.
One of the heaviest waves in the world is forecast for 6-10 foot waves – not its fiercest form.
But the word “tattoo” is derived from the Tahitian tautau – “to mark” – for a reason. And plenty of the world’s best surfers believe these mid-sized Teahupo’o swells drag more of them across the razor sharp reef than the break’s truly cranking waves. At least they tend to add more water to the equation.
Australian star Ethan Ewing’s two fractured vertebrae from a spill last week did come on a smaller four-foot peak – an unnecessary reminder of what’s at stake.
“The fear’s there, absolutely,” veteran Sally Fitzgibbons says, having taken on waves like Pipeline, Botany Bay’s Cape Fear, and of course, Teahupo’o.
“The ocean’s the most powerful thing you face, you just accept it’s got you covered.
Sally Fitzgibbons comes unstuck at Pipeline in 2020.Credit: Getty
“It’s finding a way to connect and work with it. The fear’s there, it’s going to be there, so it’s about embracing it to a point and managing to keep your wits about you with it.
“That’s why when you step up to the start line, you’ve got to celebrate that too. Don’t worry about win or lose, because you’ve been spinning wheels in your mind for weeks, months.
“A place like Teahupo’o getting announced for the Olympics? Trust me, people are getting nervous about that already.
“You just want to give someone a hug and say ‘good job’ don’t you?”
Fitzgibbons is riding the Matildas wave like the rest of us and played junior soccer with several current and former stars, including Caitlin Foord, Emily van Egmond, Kyah Simon and Ellyse Perry.
The 2006 NSW Combined High Schools side – featuring Matildas Kyah Simon (fourth from left, back row), Emily van Egmond (sixth from left, back row) and champion surfer Sally Fitzgibbons (third from right, front row)
Coming from an individual sport, where the only other person in a line-up can be your direct competitor, she puts plenty of stock in those nine teammates standing arm-in-arm on halfway during a shootout.
Aloisi describes those same tense minutes as “just brutal on the emotions” as each shot is saved, missed or nailed.
“And that walk, it was like I floated from halfway to the penalty spot,” he says of his 2005 strike.
In the moments before sinking Uruguay with the first shot to stop a nation, Aloisi was taken back to the day prior, when coach Guus Hiddink called his players out one-by-one at training to bed down Australia’s shootout tactics.
“There’s not 80,000 people watching. But there is Guus Hiddink. And if you can deal with that pressure, you can deal with 80,000 people,” he said.
By and large, it’s each to their own when it comes to that pressure. As the French were downed last Saturday, Mary Fowler, 20 years old, “just acted like it’s training. 49,000 people, watching training”.
Caitlin Foord was calm, Steph Catley second guessed her approach and her shot.
Sam Kerr went back to her worst nightmare.
“The only pen I was thinking about when I stepped up is the last World Cup when I missed,” Kerr said, effectively telling herself to do the opposite.
That winning moment: The Matildas celebrate Cortnee Vine’s winning penalty.Credit: Getty
She duly did, nailing the remarkably similar scenario to a 2019 shot against Norway that sailed high as Australia crashed out of the tournament.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Aloisi says. “Maybe it was a bit of reverse engineering, ‘I don’t want that feeling again?’ Everyone manages that fear, that pressure differently.”
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