It was the biggest game in Matildas’ history – and it took one of the biggest blunders to crush their Olympic gold medal hopes.
Australia had every reason to be furious following their brutal 1-0 semi-final defeat to Sweden – which robbed them of a chance at playing Canada in Friday’s gold-medal match – after superstar Sam Kerr was controversially denied the game’s opening goal.
In the shadows of the halftime, Kerr looked to have scored her sixth goal of the tournament when she beat Sweden’s Hedvig Lindahl after latching on to a superb, curling Steph Catley freekick in the 43rd minute.
It was a magnificent volley from Australia’s inspirational leader – which should’ve given the Matildas a vital halftime lead, if not for a stunning ruling in the lead-up which scratched it from the history books.
Referee Melissa Borjas ruled midfielder Emily van Egmond was the guilty party for her role in the penalty box scrum from which Kerr burst.
But van Egmond’s actions seemed minimal at best and Australia had every right to wonder why play couldn’t have run on – which would’ve allowed VAR to analyse it with a fine-tooth comb.
In finals of this magnitude, matches can be decided by the barest of margins and one mistake. On this occasion, the mistake may have come from Borjas.
“It is what it is, I feel like that’s the first one they’ve called all tournament, but that’s football,” Kerr said of her disallowed goal.
“It sucks to lose like that off one crappy goal.
“It sucks to go out like that, but we’ve got a bronze medal we can win still so we’ve got to regroup. Obviously it hurts tonight and we’ll be disappointed, but we’ll be back and ready for the USA.”
If the Matildas were unlucky before halftime, worse was to come.
With the first attacking raid of the second half, a deflected shot from Filippa Angeldal took a wicked bounce in front of Australian keeper Teagan Micah – the ball bouncing over her outstretched hand before rebounding off the crossbar into the path of Fridolina Rolfo.
The Swedish striker, who banged in two goals during their group stage win over Australia, skilfully slotted home with Micah still on her heels.
The twin blows signalled a brutal end to the Matildas’ magnificent gold medal campaign.
Try as they might, despite dominating possession and field position and sending relentless attacking raids, Australia would never get another chance as good as the one that was snuffed out late in the first half.
Catley stung the gloves of Lindahl in the 74th minute with a fierce stroke from close range.
Teenager Mary Fowler was injected, and immediately put Sweden’s defence on notice, while Ellie Carpenter gave her all to the point where she was shown a red card for a last-ditch attempt to save a goal.
Alanna Kennedy fired a free kick over the cross bar. And not even Kerr could conjure the miraculous this time, though she came close when given a sliver of a headed chance with three minutes remaining.
But it wasn’t to be, and Australia fell to their knees amid cries of anguish that rang around the nearly-empty 70,000 seater stadium.
Instead, Australia will head back to Kashima – the scene of their famous 4-3 quarter-final defeat of Great Britain – where the USA will be waiting in the bronze medal match.
Tony Gustavsson will have to pick his squad up from Monday’s crushing disappointment, because a bronze medal would still be a momentous achievement for the Matildas’ golden generation.