Sam Kerr’s face was a rictus of agony. The Australian superstar striker had just sprayed a magnificent volley attempt wide of goal. She bent her arms over her head, clutching at her hair, staring hard at nothing and everything.
All tournament long, the specter of her absence due to a calf injury had hung over the team. There was no Australia press conference where someone didn’t ask about Kerr and her recovery and how many minutes she might get and if she would start.
And here, in the one game she did finally start, in the game when all of Australia had finally bought in and set their hearts on the final, the weight of it seemed like it was crushing her.
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That’s the unfortunate, heady fate that dominates the life of any superstar. As Kerr goes, so goes the nation. And in this case, Kerr and the nation’s quest for a historic appearance in the World Cup final went wanting in a 3-1 loss to England.
“The only thing that’s keeping me smiling right now is the way that we’ve inspired the nation. Everyone’s got behind us,” Kerr said afterward. “The tournament’s been amazing. Every single team that’s visited has said how beautiful our country is. So I think for us, it’s been hopefully life-changing for women’s football in Australia.”
This loss felt particularly sharp in its indifference to that narrative. Australia, gaining massive crowds, an international sensation on their run in the tournament, showing that women’s soccer can break through past a parade of other sports if given the proper platform to do so.
And Kerr, 29 years old and in her prime as a striker, captain of the host nation’s team, had earlier in that game given Australia one of her most magnificent goals in an already stunning career.
Momentum should have been flowing unstoppably. Yet it wasn’t enough.
To a person, everyone involved in any team who has been asked about Kerr has reminded reporters that Australia is not just Kerr. Even England manager Sarina Wiegman said it the day before the game when asked if she had one plan for an Australia that started with Kerr and another for Kerr as a sub. The truth of that statement was a double-edged sword tonight: yes, Australia is not just Kerr. And as such, Kerr alone could not drag her team through all of England to the final.
After England scored its second go-ahead goal, after Lauren Hemp was able to barge her way past Ellie Carpenter with the help of a bit of lucky bounce, Kerr seemed to stare back at the entire Australian half of the field in disbelief.
Eight minutes. That was how long they’d been tied 1-1 after Kerr’s stunning strike from distance. Eight minutes of hope, of a renewed frenzy of cheers, the sound in the stadium regaining that particular quality where it feels like it’s saturating your personal space, seeping in through your very pores. Her goal had a 0.03 xG chance, meaning someone in her position, defended roughly the way she was, is expected to score on that chance 3% of the time. Three out of every 100 tries. That’s the magic that Kerr has always pulled out of the slimmest margins, and in this case it lasted less time than a pregame warmup.
After the match, as Kerr stopped in front of the media assembled in the mixed zone, her body was almost half-tucked behind one of the concrete pillars at the base of Stadium Australia. A journalist made an attempt at consolation, telling Kerr it was a very good goal.
“Yeah,” Kerr said dully. “Guess it doesn’t really matter though. All I can think about is disappointment right now.”
How miserable, that such an incredible goal, one which yanked millions of Australians simultaneously to their feet, could be reduced to “disappointment.” It feels unjust that Kerr should gift all of us something so beautiful and joyous and receive nothing in return.
Kerr only stopped for a few questions, but she was asked more than once about the future, and legacy, and building something to endure. As a symbol, there’s more to Kerr’s power than her foot or her head, and she’s long known it. And in answering, she rebuked the notion that a moment had slipped out of Australia’s fingers.
“This isn’t a once in a lifetime,” she said. “If you bring the product to Australia, we’ll go out and support it. And hopefully, we’ve got a few more fans that will stick around, but now it’s time for funding and all of that stuff to be invested in the game, because this is the world’s game for a reason.”
She put out the call: “We need funding in our development. We need funding in our grassroots. We need funding everywhere. Comparison to other sports isn’t really good enough. And hopefully this tournament changes that, because that’s the legacy you leave. Not what you do on the pitch. The legacy is what you do off the pitch.”
That’s the role of the symbol: asked about the immediate moment and the goal, and about how to build a program for every other girl in Australia, and about rallying the nation to give them one last push up the hill in their third-place game in Brisbane against Sweden.
The Matildas are not just Sam Kerr. But Sam Kerr is the Matildas, and her legacy is their legacy, and their hope is her hope, for eight minutes, and for the years to come.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)