Australia exit World Cup, but Sam Kerr’s goal lives forever

SYDNEY — Sam Kerr is crouched down, head in her hands, alone in the middle of Stadium Australia. Behind her, on the absurdly large screen that curves around one end of the stadium, are the Spanish and English flags, a picture of the Women’s World Cup trophy, and “the final” in all capital letters.

The Matildas have just lost 3-1 to England in a World Cup semifinal and everyone is once again thinking: What’s going through Kerr’s mind in this moment? Is it swirling with a thousand different emotions competing to be the dominant one? Or is her mind empty, unable to process what’s happened, not only this evening but over the last three weeks?

All we know for certain is that Kerr looks gutted and her heartbreak is shared by the entire nation. Her dejection will become one of the lasting images of this tournament.

– Women’s World Cup: Home | Squads | Fixtures | Podcast

But if we rewind the tape approximately half an hour, and many Australians will in the days to come, we’ll see what would have been another defining image. Kerr, a single fist in the air, after scoring one of the most remarkable goals a World Cup semifinal has ever seen, finally getting her time and her moment in what should have been her World Cup.

On paper, Kerr’s goal in this loss will read as mere consolation. But for those who watched — in Stadium Australia or elsewhere around this wide brown land — Kerr’s goal was a dream realised, the physical, tangible embodiment of hope. It was perfect.

At the 60-minute mark of the match, a handful of inconsequential 50-50 calls went Australia’s way. The pendulum had swung in the Matildas’ favour and the crowd knew it. As England attempted a move forward, Alessia Russo dropped deeper with Matildas centre-back Clare Hunt in tow. Russo turned into trouble and a waiting Hunt picked her pocket and diverted the ball away to Katrina Gorry. Gorry passed the ball to Kerr just inside her own half, and so our tale of individual brilliance began.

The Aussie skipper turned to meet the path of the ball and in front of her was half a pitch. She ran with the ball at her feet quickly. Behind her, England defender Alex Greenwood gave chase forlornly. In front of her, two familiar faces: Chelsea teammates Millie Bright and Jess Carter. Neither of the defenders looked to shut down Kerr, while the striker was plotting and advancing.

Out on the left was Caitlin Foord. As is so often the case when Australia break quickly on the counter, it is Kerr and Foord reacting the quickest, running the fastest, doing their telepathic thing, and ultimately scoring a goal.

Kerr knew Foord was running out to her left. She knew that both Bright and Carter weren’t looking at her. She knew that she could play the perfect pass out to her teammate and she would no doubt do the job; Carter and Bright would need to turn and keep their feet to even attempt shutting her down and in the time it would take them to do that, Foord would already be bearing down on goal in a one-on-one against Lionesses keeper Mary Earps.

Almost every Australian watching was thinking: “Pass it to Foord. Foord’s free. Foord. Foord. FOORD!”

But in the space of six yards, as Kerr continued, she made a decision. She lined up on her right foot from 25 yards out and struck the ball. From Kerr’s boot meeting the ball to it hitting the back of the net was about two seconds. But those two seconds stretched out before everyone watching.

Everyone held their breath as they realised Kerr had gone for goal. With pounding hearts they waited and watched for those two agonising seconds as the ball rose and span and dipped.

There’s a photo, taken by the camera in the goal, of Mary Earps in midair, looking directly at the ball behind her hitting the back of the net. You can practically hear the record scratch and an Earps voiceover saying: “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.”

But the England goalkeeper is merely a supporting character in this moment. It’s Kerr’s moment. It’s Australia’s moment. Millions watched the ball’s trajectory and couldn’t help but partake in that reflexive reaction. The sharp inhale. The unleashing of an almighty roar.

The Matildas were back in the semifinal and it was all thanks to the woman they’d played without for the majority of the tournament. And for eight glorious minutes, Australia reveled. The joy, the hope, the dream still alive.

“Sam Kerr’s missed so much this tournament but she didn’t miss then,” former Matilda Amy Chapman said on the world feed commentary, reminding everyone that this is how it could’ve been. In that sense, parity lasting such a short amount of time felt like the perfect parallel for Kerr’s tournament as a whole.

The goal was a reminder of Kerr’s star and in turn what we’d all missed out on. Eight blissful minutes weren’t long enough to enjoy Kerr’s goal. And the skipper’s 167 minutes across three of the Matildas six games at the World Cup weren’t enough for her to do her thing.

Put simply, the worst-timed calf injury deprived us all of Kerr at the peak of her powers in her home World Cup.

Andrew Solomon once wrote “A crushed hope is suffused with a nobility mere hopelessness can never know.” While he wasn’t talking about Australia as they watched Lauren Hemp cancel Kerr’s goal out and Russo seal the deal in the 86th minute of a World Cup semifinal, the sentiment doesn’t ring any less true.

There was genuine belief around the nation. The country lived for the hope of it all. Australia featuring in a World Cup final didn’t seem farfetched. It felt within reach. And hope didn’t feel dangerous. It was powerful and all encompassing.

Australia will hope again, fueled by a pride in their Matildas, as the team face Sweden in Saturday’s third-place playoff. It is a pride that is much stronger than the immediate heartbreak and disappointment because it is built on who this team is, what they stand for, and the revolution they have driven into unprecedented territory.

The Matildas have given Australia a magical month, and it’s not done yet. And when they look back on this tournament, they will think back to Kerr’s perfect goal.

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