Fate goes against the nation that arguably loves sports the most.
Okay, it’s not really that debatable.
“And for her as a person,” Steph Catley, who replaced the 29-year-old Kerr as captain on Thursday night against Ireland, “we were absolutely devastated.” Then: “We had to pull ourselves together pretty quickly.” They rallied for a messy 1-0 drubbing of a more than creditable Ireland with some real buzz near the great relief of a whistle. They did with Catley’s 52nd-minute penalty, the first penalty the 29-year-old has taken in 11 years with the Matildas. They did it with just enough grit, without the pitch space usually afforded them Kerr’s dynamic presence and with Kerr as “our spiritual leader”, as Catley put it.
It’s just that no one really wants to go to the big stadium with its big noise to see her lead spiritually.
Of course, this is nothing against her spiritual leadership.
Here’s how it went: Kerr and manager Tony Gustavsson sat through a news conference Wednesday, aware of the cursed calf, but revealed nothing and signaled no distress. Call it skillful acting. Gustavsson et al waited until Wednesday night for confirmation of what was going on with that calf, then Kerr told his teammates: “This isn’t about me; this is about you; this is about the team that’s playing tomorrow night.” Then the Matildas made their announcement near kickoff. “When did we find out?” Ireland manager Vera Pauw said. “When we got the match schedule.”
It showed Kerr, the one with the 120 international matches and 63 goals (the most ever for a Matilda) and the one whom trained eyes call the world’s best striker, among the substitutes. It all came a day after Kerr coincidentally said at the press conference, “I think the expectations have kind of started [past] four years.” Now her teammates warmed up as she stood on the sidelines watching and chewing gum, appearing on the big screen at several points, including one just as the public address system played Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For.” At one point in the pregame, a camera panned toward Kerr, and she saw it and gave a smile and a thumbs up. Kerr’s absence will continue into the next game, against Nigeria, and as for the next one, against Canada, Gustavsson couldn’t answer that for sure, even as he asked reporters for understanding about his situation on Wednesday.
“Two games and then we’ll reassess afterwards,” he said, “and that tells you a bit about the character [of injury] it is.”
His team still had what Pauw accurately called “powerful” and “strong” and “attacking” players, but her team’s defense struggled noticeably. “I think it was a game where a point could have come our way,” Pauw said. “I’m really proud. The game plan worked. They couldn’t do what they wanted.” The Girls in Green, meanwhile, were “ready for this level” – in Ireland’s first Women’s World Cup – “and I’m just very, very proud.” Ireland “were going for a result,” she said shortly afterwards, “not just to be here part of a great tournament in Australia.”
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It didn’t come to fruition, due to a sequence early in the second half after Australia had begun to look as if it had settled from its unthreatening first half and found some composure and patience. Kyra Cooney-Cross, a 21-year-old who got the nod when she flourished, sent a ball from about 35 yards towards the box, and although the ball didn’t look too promising, it seemed to cause alarm down below. Irish midfielder Marissa Sheva ended up shoving Australian forward Hayley Raso from behind, and Raso sprawled on her front side, asking for the referee’s acknowledgment of her distress.
The award came and Catley stood over the ball for the penalty because “I’m usually up there if Sam doesn’t want to take it for whatever reason,” she explained helpfully later, after left-footing the penalty into the top left corner and then running madly up the pitch as her teammates and their fans seemed to feel something akin to relief. “I can see why strikers are strikers,” Catley said, “because that adrenaline rush is like nothing else.”
As Ireland switched strikes to attack, they began to throw defenders and cause tension, just as Australia began to lose possessions and feel the tension. In the 71st minute, Ireland’s Katie McCabe curled into a corner so good and scary that goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold had to dive to clear it. In the 90th minute after a foul, Ireland’s Megan Connolly curled a free-kick from the top of the box which just barely slipped onto the roof of the net. And in seven minutes of added time, Ireland looked the fresher of the two with various threats allowing Pauw to say: “Until the last second we were able to put them under pressure.”
Australia had won in a game without its remarkable flair, Gustavsson said, because they had learned to win in grinds. Now it looks like its bid to surpass its best World Cup finish (quarter-finals, three times) could feature a number of grinds. What a cruel fate for the eyeballs suddenly stuck in moans of laughter instead of Kerr’s wonder.