Sam Kerr’s hands were on her knees. At the other end of the pitch she had just witnessed Alessia Russo score England’s third goal to end Australia’s dream of winning the Women’s World Cup. The feeling of responsibility was obvious. Just 72 seconds earlier, she had missed a chance from close range that would have levelled the match.
For Kerr, it looked like torture. The worst thing that could happen to a striker, a captain, the leader of a footballing nation. The kind of pain that never leaves. The story written entirely the wrong way.
And then her head dropped.
But around the country, the eyes of millions of Australian football fans – old and many more new – went nowhere. They understood Kerr’s suffering but, after the ride the Matildas had taken them on over the past month, they knew she owed them nothing more.
Australia’s new favourite team delivered an occasion oozing quality, tactical tension and the kind of fightback that keeps mythology in business. After beating the best the world could throw at them in the tournament so far, they ended up facing an opposition they knew better than any other. The European champions, to boot. And for eight tantalising minutes in the second half on Wednesday it looked like the Matildas were going to win.
The period began modestly. The clock ticking over 62 minutes, the score 1-0, and the Matildas clearly second best against the Lionesses. Then Clare Hunt nipped in to win an unremarkable ball and found the midfielder Katrina Gorry, who released Kerr.
The striker had started a match for the first time in the tournament, as her calf injury began to settle. But early on she looked short of her best. A one-on-one shot in the first half was sent straight to the goalkeeper, then ruled out for offside anyway. More than one loose touch. Not even in the area for a cross from Steph Catley. But the No 20 grew into the game. By the second half she began to show flashes. And then it happened.
When Kerr received the ball from Gorry in the 63rd minute, she was half the pitch away from goal. A single gold shirt, isolated in a sea of blue. But she dashed ahead, and – as she closed to 25 metres – let fly. Her strike found the net and pierced the night. The 75,000-strong crowd inside Stadium Australia roared. If Kerr had shown flashes before, this was a supernova seen in real time. At the tournament’s climax, its biggest star blazed.
The clock ticked on, and the embers still glowed. Now, the onus was on the England defenders to stop Australia’s captain. The rest of the Matildas were right there holding matches, fetching kindling or just staring into the flames.
Kerr burst into the box again, a defender’s outreached leg just keeping her at bay. The ensuing corner narrowly scrambled away. The crowd was oxygen, the place all heat and light. Another cross to Kerr, a glancing header well saved.
This was the kind of moment that never leaves a nation. Dominating a World Cup semi‑final, showing up a traditional rival, and – most of all – proving its actors are befitting of the stage. It was the culmination of the best month of football the country has seen. But if the script had been building along a conventional arc, a defensive lapse turned it into pure horror.
Nothing was on when Millie Bright hit it long to Lauren Hemp – but an awkward bounce got the better of Ellie Carpenter, and England were up 2-1.
Despite the goal, Australia were still in the game. Cortnee Vine came on and was immediately a threat down the right. Mary Fowler always seemed close to creating something. The best chance she manufactured was for Kerr, who glanced a header too high.
Then in the 85th minute, a weak punch off a corner from the England goalkeeper, Mary Earps, looped into the air. A nation gasped. The ball found Kerr in space in the six-yard box. There could have been nobody better to take it, yet still her volley skewed wide. Kerr put her hands on the back of her head. She wore a quizzical frown. The most confident and charismatic of Australians. Suddenly all confusion, desperation, disbelief.
After the whistle, there was Kerr. Alone. The England players came and went, barely registering on the captain’s glazed eyes. She put her shirt over her face. Inconsolable. She threw a drink bottle to the ground in disgust.
Then Kerr appeared on the big screen. And the fans cheered.