The quarterfinals are the stage of the World Cup when dreams die. The teams that make it past that stage are almost never dreamers, but the ones that were expected to contend for the title before the tournament started. They don't enter with a chip on their shoulder, thinking they need to prove people wrong. The teams that make the semifinals are meeting expectations; anything less would have seen a coach fired and half the team dropped.
On Saturday, Australia met the same fate as 99 percent of the lovable underdogs to come before them. They fought valiantly, again, for the fifth game in a row, but they failed to overcome defending champions Japan. The Matildas scrapped and clawed, restricting Japan's chances, looking dangerous on the break, but ultimately lost on this goal.
It's an awful, unlucky goal to lose on. Especially since it was probably marginally offside.
And the saddest part is that it's the last way you'd expect Australia to lose. Japan beat them with hustle. For the first time in this tournament, the Matildas just got outworked.
Their physical play and work rate were what made the Matildas so endearing at this World Cup. They ran themselves into the ground in every game, and beat Brazil because of it. Their constant running and effort on every 50-50 ball were what kept them in their quarterfinal for so long too.
Lisa De Vanna's substitution was a sign that Australia were out of gas. Australia's captain and fastest player was also their hardest working for the first hour of this match. The only reason Alen Stajcic would have substituted her is if he thought her legs had gone. And if De Vanna's legs had gone, the other outfield players wouldn't be far behind.
Around the 75th minute, Australia stopped creating dangerous counters. They started struggling to win the ball. Japan was pinning them back in their own half. And eventually, it resulted in a goal. A garbage goal that was probably offside, sure, but it's one that Australia wouldn't have conceded if they were rested. Watching them get out-worked on a pure hustle goal felt like watching an older sibling lose a fight.
Maybe it could have been different if Australia got a better draw. They had to get through the toughest group in the tournament before facing Brazil in the Round of 16, so their top players have started and finished five straight matches. Japan got to rest their top players incrementally, and had fresh legs at the end of this match. Maybe the Maserati-speed version of De Vanna scores in this game when the trying-really-hard-but-extremely-tired version of her could not.
That "what if" deserves a brief mention, but it shouldn't be dwelled on. Instead, remember what Australia accomplished at this tournament. They played five extremely entertaining matches, which is more than we can say for any other team. They became the first Australian team, men's or women's, to win a knockout stage game in the World Cup, and they did it against Brazil.
Australia were awesome, and they made this World Cup more fun.