Sam Kerr was a spellbound seven-year-old when she watched Indigenous Australian Cathy Freeman inspire a nation with an electrifying run for the 400m gold at the Sydney Olympics.
Twenty-three years on, the captain of Australia’s Matildas hopes to conjure another iconic sporting moment for home fans at the Women’s World Cup.
“Just watching how one person can be so focused and have the weight of the nation on her back, that really appealed to me as a kid,” said Kerr.
“I feel we can have a ‘Cathy Freeman moment’. Everyone knows where they were when Cathy ran that race.”
The stage could not be better set for Kerr and her team mates, who may be the best Australian squad assembled at a World Cup.
Winning eight of their last nine matches, including a 2-0 upset of European champions England, Tony Gustavsson’s side have emerged as genuine contenders from a bleak period last year.
Soccer has never been the country’s most popular sport – Australian Rules football and rugby league contest that claim.
However, Australians are in the mood for more soccer heroics after their unfancied men’s team made it to the round of 16 at the World Cup last year.
With no big-name players, Graham Arnold’s Socceroos relied on grit and team spirit in Qatar but the Matildas have global superstar Kerr and an army of green-and-gold fans in their corner for the World Cup co-hosted with New Zealand.
Australians may struggle to name more than a few top women footballers but Kerr is on the lips of every passing fan and her face on billboards in every major city.
The country’s most prolific striker with 63 goals in 120 appearances, Kerr is also a magnet for global brands and became the first woman on the cover of EA Sports’ FIFA, the world’s most popular soccer video game.
Kerr has not played club football in Australia since leaving Perth Glory in 2019 but her prolific scoring for Chelsea and trademark backflip celebrations rarely fail to make network news.
Some 3,000 people packed Fed Square in Melbourne’s CBD on Tuesday to greet Kerr and her team mates ahead of the Matildas’ final World Cup warmup against France at Docklands stadium.
An Australian record crowd for a women’s soccer match is expected for the match on Friday.
“We’re going to need you for this World Cup. So pack the stadiums, wear your yellow, green and gold, and we’ll do everything we can to make you guys proud,” Kerr told the cheering Fed Square crowd.
LOST TO ‘AUSSIE RULES’
Melbourne is the heartland of ‘Aussie Rules’ and the Docklands stadium doubles as the governing Australian Football League’s (AFL) headquarters for the top flight of the game.
AFL executives may wonder what might have been when the Matildas turn up at Docklands.
Kerr grew up in a family of Aussie Rules royalty and the contact sport played on sprawling oval fields was her first love.
Both her father Roger and older brother Daniel played professionally, the latter a star midfielder for AFL team West Coast Eagles, who won a championship in 2006.
But there were no professional opportunities for women in the sport until the launch of AFLW in 2017, and by the age of 12 Kerr could no longer play matches with boys.
She switched to soccer and a few years after picking it up made her international debut against Italy at 15.
At 17, Kerr played at her first World Cup in 2011 in Germany but it would be several years and a serious knee injury before she would truly hit her stride.
Once a winger, Kerr found her groove as a traditional number nine and has banged in 55 of her goals in her last 72 internationals, including a four-goal blitz against Jamaica at the 2019 World Cup in France.
On the break, there is probably no deadlier finisher in women’s football or better header of a ball, despite her modest 1.67m height.
For all the benefits, Australia’s heavy reliance on Kerr has brought its challenges, particularly when midfield service is wanting.
Gustavsson has added pacy wide players like Cortnee Vine to his squad with the hope of creating more avenues to goal for the Matildas, who face Ireland, Nigeria and Canada in the group phase.
Forever a target, Kerr said she would be glad to be shut down by opponents if it allowed a team mate a chance.
“If two people are marking me, that means someone else is free,” she said.
“It might be someone else’s tournament to shine.”