IT WAS THE GOAL the country had been waiting for. The night when, for a brief moment, the brightest star shone on the biggest stage.

Sam Kerr’s World Cup hadn’t gone to plan. The Matildas’ talismanic skipper and goal-scoring savant had suffered a calf strain before the first game of the tournament. From that moment on, her lower left limb became a national talking point, even prompting one news organisation to hover over a Matildas’ practice session in a helicopter.

When she finally made her tournament debut in the 78th minute in the Matildas’ round-of-16 match against Denmark, Kerr was met with wild applause as she took the field. She subbed on again after half time in the quarter-final against France. That game, of course, went to penalties, with Cortnee Vine’s 20th spot kick sealing a victory that sent a nation into hysterics.

Finally, in the tournament’s semi-final against the old enemy, Kerr started. England scored first and things got tense, both in the stadium and in live sites and loungerooms around the country. And then, in a moment that had an air of fatefulness, Kerr got the ball in England’s half, broke free from defenders and dribbled up the field like a surging tide. As she approached the box, you could sense something special was about to happen. You weren’t wrong. Kerr’s kick sprung violently off her boot, rocketing past England goalkeeper Mary Earps’ outstretched hand, into the top left corner. Kerr had delivered the moment of the tournament.

In its sheer thrilling virtuosity, this goal narrowly eclipsed Vine’s penalty. It was bigger than John Aloisi’s famous spot kick to send the Socceroos to Germany back in 2005 or Shane Warne’s 700th Test wicket.

Yes, it was just a moment. The Matildas couldn’t quite overcome a stout Lionesses’ defence, but moments have power. This one has already been cast in bronze in our collective imagination, a stunning embodiment of the joy and sense of unity that enveloped the country for a few glorious weeks. In doing so, it slid right up next to Cathy Freeman’s iconic 400m gold at the Sydney Olympics to occupy pride of place on the Australian sporting mantelpiece.

The Matilda’s in a huddle at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. | GETTY

Kerr and the Matildas took us to giddying heights and with the glow of their World Cup campaign still lingering, now is perhaps not the best time to make a coolly rational case for the rise of Aussie sport more broadly. But if not to elicit fervour, stoke hyperbole and provoke argument, what are galvanising moments for?

Rise? Hasn’t the nation always had a warped preoccupation with its athletes and sporting teams? Hasn’t that fixation at times devolved into jingoism? Is patriotism really a reliable marker with which to chart a nation’s relationship with sport? Yes, yes and no. But nevertheless, the case is there to be made that, propelled by the mighty Matildas, Australian sport has entered a golden age, one defined less by results (the Matildas didn’t win the World Cup, after all) but by our athletes’ ability to capture the imagination, inhabit the cultural zeitgeist and bring us together.

Exhibit no.2: this winter, the Australian men’s cricket team retained the Ashes. Didn’t win the series, mind you, but for a few weeks they too commanded the attention of the nation. Was England batsman Johnny Bairstow’s dismissal in the spirit of the game? Was it cricket? Everyone had their view, including prime ministers. Bottomline: Pat Cummins and his men played hard but fair, not something you could always say about a team caught cheating on camera and one that once prided itself on inducing ‘mental disintegration’ in its opponents. It’s been somewhat forgotten now, but prior to the Ashes, this Australian team took out the ICC World Test Championship. If they manage to prevail in the forthcoming 50-over World Cup, they will be the first to achieve that double.

Earlier, our women’s cricket team also retained the Ashes and are the reigning 50-over world champions after winning last year’s World Cup. Earlier this year, the players secured a 66 per cent increase in salary, which will see their annual earnings hit $800,000 by the end of the deal. No, it’s not on par with what the top male players earn but the gap is closing.

On the international front, this year catches our Olympians at an enviable juncture, coming off a record-equalling 17-gold-medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics, with a legitimate shot at surpassing that total at Paris 2024. With Brisbane 2032 on the horizon, you would only expect the gold rush to continue, as the increased investment in infrastructure, training facilities and world class coaches that hosting a Games inevitably brings, begins to bear fruit.

In that respect, Australia’s recent domination at this year’s World Aquatic Championships in Fukuoka, in which the ‘Dolphins’ led the gold medal count with 13, augurs well for Paris. Freestyle sensation Mollie O’Callaghan left Fukuoka with five golds—the most of any swimmer at the meet. Along with Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Kyle Chalmers, the Dolphins are stacked.

In athletics, Australia now boasts a pole-vaulting world champion, after Nina Kennedy offered to share the gold medal with American, Katie Moon, at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Both athletes were knackered from heat and exhaustion and Kennedy’s sporting gesture was both lauded and criticised in the days afterward. Whether you agreed with the move or not, it too was a moment that provoked discussion.

Australia UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski. GETTY

In combat sports, Alexander Volkanovski regained the UFC featherweight title, after moving up to lightweight, with a clinical dismantling of Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290 in July. The former rugby league player currently sits at no.2 in the UFC men’s pound-for-pound rankings behind Jon Jones.

In boxing, meanwhile, George Kamboses Jnr. is the lightweight world champion and Tim Tszyu, the WBO interim light- middleweight champion. Both have a chance to cement their legacies in the coming years.

Finally, while the Boomers crashed out of the FIBA World Cup, the team collected its first ever bronze medal at Tokyo and is loaded with talent, led by Josh Giddey and Ben Simmons, that should ensure a seamless transition from the Patty Mills era. The Opals, meanwhile, won bronze at last year’s home World Cup.

All of this success is notable for a few reasons. It’s evenly spread across our male and female athletes; if anything women are outperforming men on the global stage and, in most cases, celebrated equally for their efforts.

And our athletes, in reflection of the changing face of Australian society, are becoming more diverse. Many of our stars are first or second generation immigrants and, particularly in our domestic footballing codes, many are Indigenous. Led by the Matildas, our female sporting teams, at least, feature openly gay athletes.This inclusiveness is helping take sport beyond its traditional white-male fan base, while offering a compounding legacy of role models and heroes that will ensure even greater representation in future years.

Similarly, our athletes are commercially appealing, culturally savvy examples of the best of what it means to be Australian.

In that sense, it’s fitting then, that the sporting moment of the year belonged to Kerr, a queer woman with an Anglo-Indian father, but first, foremost, and after the World Cup, now forever, an Australian sporting icon.


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