When her image emerged on the massive, curved video screen, everyone in Stadium Australia stood up at once. After what seemed like an eternity, the day finally arrived that the supporters and, indeed, the whole nation had been waiting for. Sam Kerr was set to play in her first World Cup game on home soil. From the look on her face, it seems that she is enjoying the wait as much as anybody else.
Kerr may have only appeared for 18 minutes, making her role nothing more than a cameo or a test run. Though she may not have had much of an effect, the fans became excited whenever the ball came anywhere near her.
Australia had already won 2-0 against Denmark and advanced to face the winner of France and Morocco in the quarterfinals in Brisbane before she ever entered the field. Midway through the first half, Caitlin Foord scored a beautiful goal to put the home team ahead. Even before Kerr was introduced, the situation had been calmed down by the equally excellent Hayley Raso.
But that doesn’t matter, because having Kerr around makes a huge difference. Australia’s hopes for this tournament took a major hit when it was announced only hours before their first game that she had hurt her calf and wouldn’t be able to play for at least a week.
A player of her caliber’s absence would be felt on all fronts (tactical, technical, and sporting), but the real damage was done emotionally. Foord, Raso, and Mary Fowler (imperial versus Denmark, instrumental in both goals) are all top-tier players, and these are just a few examples of the depth Tony Gustavsson has at his disposal.
However, Kerr is Australia’s talisman and totem. This prominence had been heightened in the weeks and months leading up to the event. Kerr was the player that embodied the World Cup, appearing on magazine covers and murals everywhere. Sometimes it seemed like this tournament was as much about her as it was about Australia and New Zealand.
The degree to which Australia seemed unsure and weakened in her absence was the finest indicator of her importance. It struggled against Ireland and fell short versus Nigeria. The tide turned only when her teammates seemed to grab the nettle and understand that their mission was to prolong the tournament so that she may perhaps compete in it.
They blew by our northern neighbour. After a shaky start at Stadium Australia, they were able to easily dispatch of Denmark. In essence, they were to bring Kerr as near to the finish line as possible, like a bicycle sprint train.
The nervousness of the squad has passed to the nation. The task for the supporters was to keep hope alive despite the absence of their most trusted player. Australia’s enthusiasm for this event has, if anything, surpassed even the country’s own high standards. The Sydney Opera House was aglow with gold and green on Monday night. There was an abundance of people in the fan parks. All it had to do was keep going till she got back.
After all, with or without Kerr, the Australia squad is a very different prospect. It has been a painstaking, torturous process to try to get her back to some semblance of fitness, and to be clear, she will still be some way short of that currently.
Against Canada, she was back with the team after a brief absence. It all started with that. Her training load has been steadily rising over time. She sat on the bench like everyone else, but after a little over an hour she showed up and began a little warm-up (with no great vigour, it must be stated).
For the spectators and the players, just seeing her could have been enough to give them hope for the future. At the 73-minute mark, though, she returned to the bench, twitched her socks, laced her shoes more snugly, and stood with her hands on her hips. To the extent that it was possible, she was prepared.
When the stadium saw what was occurring, it began to crackle with alarm. Banners flew. The enthusiasm was nearly too much for the crowd, and they jumped on their heels. It was too late for Australia. However, with Kerr’s return, the dynamic had shifted. After the game, Foord stated, “Knowing that she’s back and she’ll be part of our team is pretty scary for other teams.”
A few minutes after being introduced, she tripped awkwardly while attempting to challenge a high ball. The crowd, who were probably already in a state of delirium, were quiet as they waited to see what had transpired. The focus was all on her. After the second goal, Gustavsson was on the fence about whether or not to play her. The “risk” involved was something he acknowledged.
The collective sigh of relief from the rest of her squad, the spectators, and the nation was so large it could have been felt. The arrival of Kerr. Now the tournament she’s been anticipating may finally begin. Time is of the essence.