Sam Kerr injury confusion looms over the World Cup that could’ve been hers

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – JULY 24: Sam Kerr is seen with bandaging on her injured left leg during an Australia Matildas open training session at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 at Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre on July 24, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The face of the 2023 Women’s World Cup stood idly beside a training pitch on Monday, with a compression bandage wrapped tight around her left calf and a nation worrying.

Sam Kerr was supposed to be the hometown hero of this World Cup Down Under. Instead, the Australian striker sustained a calf injury on the eve of the tournament. She remains sidelined through her team’s second match — at least.

The two-game timetable initially allowed for armchair optimism that Kerr could return for Australia’s July 31 group finale, and then for the knockout rounds. But fears of longer layoff intensified on Monday in the absence of visible progress, and then in response to either a mistake or a slip.

Speaking to local media at a news conference, Australian midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross fielded a question about Kerr, and began: “It’s unfortunate that Sam tore her calf before the game.”

To which an antsy fan base responded: “tore”?!?

A team spokesperson soon attempted to clarify that Cooney-Cross had misspoken, and that Kerr had not “torn” her calf. When it later published video of the news conference, Football Australia, the team’s governing body, edited out that alarming portion of Cooney-Cross’s answer.

But its efforts to quell panic haven’t quite succeeded. The Sydney Morning Herald described the status of Kerr’s calf as a “national obsession.” Cameras followed Kerr through the airport when the team returned to base camp after its opener. On Monday, they waited for Kerr outside the team hotel. When she emerged to board a bus to training, onlookers asked: “Sam, how are ya?” “How are ya feeling, Sam?”

“Good thanks,” she said, but she seemed to walk with a slight limp.

And Football Australia, in walking back Cooney-Cross’s words, did not offer an alternate diagnosis.

It has said only that Kerr “picked up a calf injury at training,” and will be re-assessed by the team’s medical staff “following our second group stage match.”

Kerr, who’s been similarly vague, said in an Instagram statement that she hoped her status would not become a “distraction from us doing what we came here to achieve.”

But, of course, it has.

Kerr, a lethal and uncontainable goalscorer with a fierce but lovable personality, is the most recognizable name on an increasingly recognizable team.

On balance, she has been the sport’s best player over the past half-decade; this, a World Cup on home soil, in front of sold-out crowds, was her golden chance to win the sport’s biggest prize.

And the injury, for now, has ripped it right from her grasp.

It’s worth noting that a “tear,” technically, is not all that different than a strain. A strain, in the simplest of terms, is an overstretching or slight tearing of a muscle. Neither term on its own would necessarily put Kerr on track to return for the Round of 16 nor rule her out for the tournament. What matters are specifics and severity.

But national obsessions and panic leave no room for nuance.

Kerr’s uncertain status will loom over Australia’s World Cup until it’s clarified.

The country will await her presence at the tournament that should have been hers.

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