WHEN IT CAME TO school football, I was always Alan Shearer. As soon as those jumpers were thrown down as makeshift goalposts and our imaginary whistle was blown, I morphed into the Newcastle forward. I didn’t want just to play like Shearer—I wanted to be him. The quiet dignity of the post-goal celebration—one arm raised above his head as he ran smiling toward the corner flag—hid a no-nonsense playing style and ruthlessness in front of goal. He was tough but fair. And that man never missed a penalty.
As Shearer’s career ascended—he would retire as the Premier League’s all-time top goal scorer—I came to realise that football wasn’t my calling. Then, slowly but surely, the idols who’d shaped my teenage years became cautionary tales rather than role models. (Looking at you, Lance.) Leaving my Premier League hopes in the rear-view mirror, the excitable kid who practised scoring injury-time freekicks in front of a crowd of one (my mum), went on to become a contented, if somewhat cynical, magazine editor.
At least until June of this year. Because there was something special about witnessing Sam Kerr lead the Matildas to a World Cup semi-final. The story here was less about her arrival on the world stage as Australia playing catch-up to her greatness. She is, after all, a five-time nominee for the Ballon d’Or, football’s top individual prize, as well as a leading goal scorer in three different leagues. But it wasn’t so much her performances that captivated me, nor even that goal. It was her smile. Whether on the sideline supporting her teammates or busy on the pitch, Kerr’s big, contagious grin propelled me back to the wide-eyed optimism of my childhood, when all I wanted was to strike a ball as cleanly as Alan Shearer. Kerr’s demeanour reminded me to enjoy the moment; that the thrill of the journey is more important than the result. If she entered the tournament a star, she left it as a legend.
In our cover story, we get a rare insight into the person behind the backflip. On the day of our cover shoot, Kerr announced her engagement to long-time partner and occasional opponent Kristie Mewis of the US national team. In our extended interview with the 30-year-old, she says that while football is her focus, there’s more to life than what happens on the pitch. She speaks about family, sacrifice and love—of Kristie and true-crime docos.
Joining Kerr in this issue is Jimmy Barnes, an individual whose legend is already written. Following a career spanning 20 No.1 albums, the rock god and Cold Chisel front man could easily have slid into a comfortable retirement. Instead, he’s become even more prolific, continuing to sell out stadium tours and releasing two bestselling memoirs as well as a cookbook, with his wife Jane. But, as our writer Jonathan Seidler discovers, Barnes’ biggest breakthrough has been embracing his softer side. “I cry every day now,” he says, proudly. In our interview with the 67-year-old, we get the impression that he’d be just as active even if the spotlight had moved on. Like Kerr, he’s someone driven by the purity of what he does and not the accolades that can follow.
I learned many years ago the dangers of elevating people to heroes. They have a habit of breaking your heart, perhaps in a tell-all interview with Oprah. But it’s the likes of Kerr and Barnes who give me hope. Are they capable of solving all the world’s problems? Of course not. But, just occasionally, their actions can inspire others to believe that anything is possible.
It’s too early to tell whether Kerr will go on to have such an extended and, shall we say, ‘colourful’ life in the public eye as Barnes has had. But this much is certain: the legend of Sam Kerr will last forever. Alongside the Cathys and the Shanes, her name will endure: the people’s player, one of the few Australians capable of uniting the nation. And while my days’ playing footy in the park may well be behind me, if that time comes again, I’m Sam Kerr. — Christopher Riley, Esquire Australia Editor-in-Chief.
Editor’s portrait: Tristan Stefan Edouard.
The December/January 2023 issue of Esquire is on sale December 14.