BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 12: Sam Kerr of Australia celebrates with her partner Kristie Mewis of USA after her team's victory through the penalty shoot out in the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Quarter Final match between Australia and France at Brisbane Stadium on August 12, 2023 in Brisbane / Meaanjin, Australia. | Photo by Elsa - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

When Sam Kerr spoke before the World Cup began of the “risk” that the rainbow armband had come to represent, many queer Australia fans felt discouraged.

Matildas legend Michelle Heyman expressed her frustration in an open letter to FIFA and the tournament sponsors, saying that spurning the Pride flag colors removed a rare chance to celebrate the LGBTQ community in the game on the biggest stage of all.

“To take that opportunity away, when there are millions of people watching our players, is disappointing,” Heyman wrote, as part of a statement signed jointly by Professional Footballers Australia, Pride Cup, Equality Australia and Stonewall UK.

Kerr’s reaction to the armband ban had come in a media conference the previous week, but alongside her pragmatism there was a note of defiance.

“There will be multiple opportunities where I get to use my voice for things,” she told reporters.

Kerr’s calf injury has restricted her to just 76 minutes on the pitch so far but she has embraced her freedom to express herself off the field.

Images of congratulatory post-match kisses with girlfriend Kristie Mewis have been shared across social media and neither star has any issue with their personal Instagram interactions being in the public domain.

The latest example was Mewis’ post late on Monday night. After an ugly backlash from some quarters against the USWNT following their round-of-16 exit, the midfielder stated that it will always be “the biggest honor” to wear the national team jersey.

She added a paragraph specifically for Kerr.

“It’s also pretty cool getting to watch my best friend live her dream. Thank you babe for always being my everything every step of the way and I’m so proud of you and thankful for you.”

Kerr echoed the words back in a reply, with additional love hearts.

The number of publicly out LGBTQ+ players in the Matildas squad runs into double figures, the most of any competing nation.

Wearing a rainbow armband was the preferred gesture to reflect that, but FIFA swiped it away, the ‘Unite for Inclusion’ reworked One Love design merely an imitation of the globally recognized symbol.

Instead, Australia has had to position Pride outside of the governing body’s control – the Progress flag that hangs prominently in the Matildas gym at their Brisbane base, and the flags and colors displayed by supporters inside and outside of stadiums.

Jen Peden is the president of The Flying Bats, the largest lesbian football club in the world, providing an inclusive community in which to play the game since the mid-1980s.

She says that while FIFA’s armband ban was not unexpected, that decision has fueled a sense of vibrancy elsewhere.

“Through the players and fans, this World Cup has demonstrated much more powerful LGBTIQA+ visibility and representation. And it has been exuberant,” she told Outsports.

“With so many out players and allies amongst the teams, the tournament has felt extremely celebratory for LGBTIQA+ fans here.

“We’ve seen fans from around the world with Pride flags and paraphernalia, Ali Riley’s rainbow nails at the opening game, Brisbane Stadium’s rainbow light show, trans non-binary representation from Canada’s Quinn, players openly celebrating with their partners like Sam Kerr and Kristie Mewis, and with their families like Katrina Gorry with her daughter, Harper, and fiancée, Clara Markstedt, or Tameka Yallop and wife Kirsty with their daughter Harley.

“We see the Matildas posting photos from their recovery sessions with those Progress Pride flags on the walls, and the Lionesses with rainbow representation in their official social media content.”

Australia’s semi-final opponents — England — have indeed shown their support, with a flag clearly visible behind every player interviewed on the sofa on the daily ‘Lionesses Down Under’ show.

The European champions may have been subtler in their solidarity compared to last summer when Leah Williamson chose to wear the rainbow armband in every game (that tournament was under UEFA rules, not FIFA). But with several out players set to start for Sarina Wiegman’s team in Sydney, we can be sure LGBTQ rights are one of the causes that the team feels most passionately about.

As for Australia, their bond with those cheering them on is as bold as the green and gold.

“As LGBTIQA+ fans, we get to see ourselves reflected in the Matildas,” adds Peden.

“We get to see that queer players and fans are an integral part of the football family from grassroots to the elite level. We get to see genuine support from Football Australia.

“That Australia has rapidly embraced the team without them having to dull down or deny their identities has felt dizzying in the best possible way.”

The anticipation couldn’t be higher for Wednesday’s game, and the traditional sporting rivalry between the two countries — as seen in cricket, rugby and netball over the years — guarantees an extra dose of drama and tension.

Armbands aside, Kerr and company will be wearing their passion on their sleeves against England.

Spain awaits the winners in the final. Game on.

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