The sound seemed to echo for an age, hanging in the stunned silence of Brisbane Stadium as millions watched the ball spin out into the empty grass near the sideline.
Mackenzie Arnold put her gloved hands on her head, watching her moment — the moment — roll away into the distance.
She had a chance to win it all. To put the Matildas through to the semifinal of the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever. But the goalkeeper’s own penalty kick ricocheted off the right-hand post instead.
Arnold had set herself up perfectly, making arguably her best save of the game to palm Eve Perisset’s penalty onto the cold white metal just a few moments earlier, which took the shootout score to 3-3 with one kick remaining.
She held the ball in her own hands then, placing it carefully onto the white painted spot that was absorbing an entire nation’s hopes.
“It’s a few small steps for Mackenzie Arnold; potentially a giant leap into the history books for the Matildas,” the broadcast commentator said as the black-clad keeper took a few measured steps backwards.
“If she scores they’re into a semifinal…”
The script was written; the planets inches away from aligning.
The noise around the stadium swelled as 49,000 people collectively realised what was about to happen, the anticipation reaching a crescendo as the sound crested over the top of the moment that could change Australian football forever.
And then… ping.
“It was almost like it was written in the stars when Macca walks up and takes that fifth one, right?” Tony Gustavsson said afterwards.
“She saves one and then it’s meant to be, kind of thing. That’s how you feel.
“And then she hits the post. And you go: okay, maybe it’s not meant to be.”
What hot emotions rushed through her then; what possible futures spun off those centimetres of metal, dissolving into the sound of that post? How did it feel to be there, perceived by millions of eyes, the fear of letting them all down threatening to crash in on top of her?
Arnold is familiar with that feeling; she was there as recently as 12 months ago.
In June of 2022, Arnold was in goal when the Matildas lost to Spain 7-0. She was on the field for six of them, all of which came in a single half, including three in less than 15 minutes.
It was one of the worst score-lines in a single game that Australia had ever suffered. For many back home, it was a humiliation. She didn’t start another game for the Matildas for the rest of the year.
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For Arnold, it felt like a curse. She hadn’t played for the team since January’s Asian Cup, keeping a clean sheet in an uncompetitive 18-0 win over Indonesia. Her last game before that came in September of 2021, where she’d been substituted off at half-time in a 3-2 loss to the Republic of Ireland.
“It really put me in a very hard mental place,” she said later that month.
“I had almost come to the realisation that I was probably third keeper at this point, and as it got closer and closer to the World Cup that I probably wasn’t going to have many more opportunities.
“After that game I thought, ‘that was probably my last chance’.”
Arnold’s Matildas career has been one long up-hill battle. Despite being part of the team for more than a decade, earning her first cap in 2012, the West Ham shot-stopper had rarely started more than a handful of games for Australia in a single year.
She had been on the sideline for two World Cups before this, in 2015 and 2019, but was never confident she’d make her way onto the grass. There were always others above her in the pecking-order: goalkeepers like Melissa Barbieri, Lydia Williams, and Teagan Micah who were more assured, more experienced, more able to handle the weight of the moment.
It was not unjustified: her performances in the jersey had oscillated wildly from game to game, pulling out miraculous saves one day only to slap the ball into her own net the next. The 2019 Asian Cup semifinal against Thailand had both, with Arnold conceding an own goal, only for her to save three penalties in the shootout to get them through to the final.
These moments stood in stark contrast with her performances at club level, where she is a three-time A-League Women Goalkeeper of the Year, a two-time trophy-winner with Brisbane Roar, and now, one of West Ham United’s most consistent and valuable players.
Nobody is as aware of the irony of her career more than Arnold herself.
As she has repeatedly said, she’s struggled to translate her club form into national team performances over the past few years, but she’s never been able to figure out why.
Maybe it’s just not meant to be.
This is a feeling that has extended to the Matildas in general.
There has always been the glimmer of greatness there, that aching hope beneath the surface of reality, but the team’s performances in major tournaments had rarely, if ever, matched the belief we had in them. They had never progressed further than a quarterfinal at a World Cup, and their overall record under Tony Gustavsson still had some people doubting they ever would.
So acclimatised had many become to this feeling that, heading into this home World Cup, even some of its most ardent followers had braced ourselves for the impact that a string of poor performances could bring.
That fear shivered out of our bones in their 3-2 loss to Nigeria: a game where Arnold was partly at fault, tangling up with Alanna Kennedy as they raced out to collect the same ball only for striker Asisat Oshoala to nip through them both and score the winner.
That loss — which put the team on the verge of being dumped out at the group stage of their home tournament — was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, feeding the cynicism that courses through Australian football’s veins, with many of its pessimists ready to cry out: I told you so.
But then something happened.
More specifically, the Canada game happened. And that’s when everything changed.
Arnold’s performances since that thrilling 4-0 win over the Tokyo gold medallists have had a sense of defiance to them: not just a fury directed at the opposition for daring to challenge this team, but a defiance against her own personal history and the countless people — including, at times, herself — that doubted what she was able to achieve.
Arnold’s four clean sheets are the most of any Australian goalkeeper at a World Cup, men or women, and reminiscent of her performances during February’s Cup of Nations, where she was named Player Of The Tournament for keeping two clean sheets in three games. She has conceded just five goals in the whole of 2023.
She — and they — are playing with something that no other team can touch. Belief.
Wrapped in solid black, reminiscent of Mark Schwarzer’s iconic performance for the Socceroos in 2005, Arnold’s presence on that white line against France was not just physical but psychological: in that moment she was the conductor of a country’s audible hopes, the architect of a wall of noise that cascaded over the field with each remarkable save, the wizard that whipped up a sonic whirlpool with every wheel of her arms.
It is poetic that Arnold used sound like a shield in this shootout given she herself struggled to hear it, discovering in April of this year that she suffers from a mild deafness that now requires hearing aids. She doesn’t wear them when she plays, though. And perhaps it is for the best in moments like Saturday’s, allowing her to keep the noise — both external and internal — at bay.
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That is perhaps what makes this moment so special: to have come from there to here, in front of this crowd, in front of this moment, after everything she had gone through, and to have done it in this way.
Her double-save on Kenza Dali’s re-taken penalty, after conceding three following her own miss, felt like just that: a refusal to have her own story written by anybody else but herself.
“For Macca missing that [penalty kick] and stay in the game and be that person — that player — that wins the game for us, it’s unheard of, that mental strength of hers,” Gustavsson said.
“This team can create history in so many ways; not just winning football games but the way they can inspire the next generation, how they can unite the nation, how they can leave a legacy that’s much bigger than 90 minute football.
“And I think that ‘why’ is why I believe in them so much. Because the ‘why’ is so much bigger than just football. When that drives you — that internal drive as a human being, whether as an individual or a group — that is a powerful tool that is very difficult to stop.
“And I’ve sensed that from day one coming into this team: the inner drive and the ‘why’ is what gets them to where they are today.”
It was a performance for the ages, not just for Arnold but for the entire Matildas team that she now personifies.
They have all thrived through suffering, blossomed through doubt, and believed in the possibility of themselves more than anything or anybody else. From the early loss of Sam Kerr to the nerves of Ireland, the stumble of Nigeria and the fight of Canada, the deft of Denmark to this game of absolute willpower over France, this is a team that has been through hell and has kept going.
No matter how their semifinal against European Champions England unfolds on Wednesday night, this is a team that has changed Australian sport forever, carried in the arms of this remarkable goalkeeper, whose journey here was shaped by something that maybe only the stars will ever understand.
“We have been through those moments in the past — we’ve been throughout the heartache, we’ve been through all the moments that you learn so much from,” Steph Catley said after the France game.
“It’s hard from the outside, when we’ve lost something, for everyone to understand how much you do gain from those situations. This team has been through everything.
“But this summed up how we are as a team at the moment: we just believe. And we keep fighting, no matter what happens.
“Whether it’s VAR, retakes, penalty misses, goals, saves, whatever it is. We never stop believing that we’re going to win.
“I’m so proud to be part of this team. What we’ve done is incredible.”