BIGGEST STAR, biggest stage, brightest lights. The moment of truth has arrived for Sam Kerr.
As the Matildas kick off their World Cup campaign against Ireland in Sydney tonight, all eyes, and certainly the bulk of expectation surrounding the team’s fortunes, fall on the shoulders of Australia’s softly spoken but talismanic skipper. As they should.
Like it or not, World Cups are when the greats of the game are either coronated — deified in Messi’s case last year — or crucified (Ronaldo last year), the door then opened for mere mortals (covers most online trolls) to point at spaces on mantlepieces and pick at legacies, no matter how imperial the player’s club record might be.
At the Matildas’ final press conference this week, Australia’s notoriously media-shy skipper did her best to appear relaxed about carrying the hopes of a nation eager to embrace her.
“Of course everyone in Australia has a lot of expectations,” Kerr said. “But it’s something I take in my stride, I try and just enjoy it.” She pointed to her experience at Chelsea, her club side, where she’s been on a tear this season, as helping her manage pressure. “I think back at Chelsea I’ve done that too, just enjoyed it,” she said. “And that’s when I’m my best me. I know what’s expected of me from my coach and my team and that’s all that really matters right now.”
It was standard press conference fare and about as much as you would expect from Kerr. As clichéd as it is, the 29-year-old Western Australian prefers to let her football do the talking. And the truth is, at World Cup level, it has a little bit of talking to do. Back in 2019 the Matildas were knocked out of the tournament on penalties, Kerr spraying her spot kick wide. Afterwards she took responsibility for the miss: “I had been trusted to take it and I was confident in taking it and I just skewed it,” she told reporters. “I’ll grow from this and become a stronger person mentally.”
Like many of the greats who’ve come before her, Kerr’s club record is unimpeachable. While her accolades are too numerous to fully detail here, she is the only female soccer player to have won the Golden Boot in three different leagues and has received the ESPY Award for Best International Women’s Soccer Player three times, most recently in 2022. She’s Australia’s all-time leading goal scorer, man or woman, with 63 goals in 120 matches. And while she hasn’t played in the National Women’s Soccer League in the US for years, she’s still the league’s all-time top scorer, with more goals than US stars Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe. Finally, she’s the first woman to appear on the global cover of the FIFA video game.
On the field Kerr has been described as a sniper, with uncanny instincts for the ball and finding the back of the net. “Next time you watch her play, see who makes the first movements,” Emma Hayes, her coach at Chelsea, once said. Like the NBA’s Steph Curry, even when she’s not scoring, Kerr attracts so much defensive attention her teammates often find themselves with acres of space.
Kerr’s standing in the game right now recalls memories of the Brazilian striker Ronaldo (nickname: O Fenomeno, The Phenomenon), heading into the 1998 World Cup. Coming off consecutive FIFA Player of the Year awards, the expectation was that Ronaldo, and all-time great with the ball at his feet, would lead Brazil to victory. It didn’t happen, a seizure before the final reducing the striker to a ghost on the pitch, as France triumphed at home. Ronaldo would get another shot at footballing immortality fours year later in Korea/Japan, this time cementing his legacy with two goals in the final and winning the Golden Boot.
Four years later in Germany it was his teammate, the god-gifted showman, Ronaldinho, who carried the burden Kerr now bears. Again, it didn’t happen. On the biggest stage, under the brightest lights, the footballing magician put on a disappearing act.
And so it goes, every World Cup, a player from a contending team is expected to carry the hopes of a country. For the USWNT , it’s Alex Morgan, who at 34, is hoping to lead the team to a third successive trophy. For Spain, it’s the inimitable Alexia Putellas, who in 2021 became the only player ever to win the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award, the Ballon d’Or Feminin and The Best FIFA Women’s Player award, all in the same year, repeating the feat in 2022.
That’s the kind of rarefied company Kerr now keeps. She and the Matildas will never get a better opportunity to make a deep run at a World Cup than here on home soil. Kerr’s final words to the media this week hinted at her resolve. “I’ll keep my cards close to my chest, but we’re really confident.”
You have to wonder what she didn’t say. You get the feeling she might tell us on the pitch.