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Australia’s Matildas Unite a Nation and Crack the Code Wars

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Australia’s Matildas Unite a Nation and Crack the Code Wars

That figure does not include those who streamed it online or the vast crowds that gathered in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to watch it en masse. By most estimates, it was the nation’s highest-rated sports event in a decade. The team’s semifinal match with England on Wednesday was cumulatively expected to surpass the 8.8 million who watched Cathy Freeman win gold in the 400 meters at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The best gauge of how deep the Matildas’ impact runs, though, is in the reaction from Australia’s other major sports. For years, soccer, men’s or women’s, has struggled to compete for both attention and revenue in what is an unusually rich sporting ecosystem, fading in comparison not only to cricket, the national summer game, but to a panoply of winter sports, all of which are known, a little unhelpfully, as “footy.”

“For a long time, the country was divided along the Barassi Line,” said Hunter Fujak, a lecturer in sports management at Deakin University. The line, named in tribute to the famed former player, coach and commentator Ron Barassi, is an imaginary, but potent, fissure. It runs from northwest to southeast, splitting Australia’s population, if not its geography, roughly in half.

To the west of the line (Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Tasmania) lies Australian rules football country. East of it (Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra) is rugby territory. The latter comes in two forms: rugby union, comprising teams of 15 players and broadly considered middle class; and rugby league, the more popular and more blue collar version played with teams of 13.

Traditionally, relations between those various sports — the so-called football codes — are frosty. They have tended to hover, in fact, somewhere between resolutely competitive and downright hostile, a phenomenon known in Australia as the code wars. The battle is a prominent enough feature of the country’s cultural landscape for Fujak to have used it as the title of a book on the subject.

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