Across all the years I’ve watched Sam Kerr play football, there’s one moment that stands out as a true illustration of her character, as an example of why she’s been voted The Guardian’s Best Female Footballer of 2019.
It’s not a goal, or a back-flip celebration, or a gesture of kindness towards a fan. It’s a moment of failure. One of the biggest in her career, perhaps, and one that feels more significant in hindsight.
In July, at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, Australia were knocked out of the World Cup by Norway. Kerr, whose name had become synonymous with goal scoring in the months leading into the tournament, had missed the Matildas’ first penalty. Her teammates soon followed, their shootout plan collapsing like a sandcastle whose foundations had crumbled and slid away beneath them.
The moment I remember, though, came fifteen minutes later. The stadium had largely emptied except for a few hundred Australia fans who’d gathered near the sideline to applaud their players, some of whom were farewelling their World Cup journeys for the last time.
But Kerr didn’t join them. She sat alone out in the middle of the pitch, her knees pulled up to her chest, her head hidden from view. She was the shape of defeat: the hunched, exhausted shoulders of someone who had been carrying something heavy for years, who’d done all she could but realized it still wasn’t enough.
That moment flooded back to me when Chelsea FC announced they’d signed Kerr on a two-and-a-half-year deal, likely making her the most expensive female footballer ever. And that announcement came while this failure was still fresh in our memories, when the eyes of the world were trained upon her and she’d fallen short, both of their expectations and of her own.
Sam Kerr has been The Sam Kerr of her respective teams for years. Sky Blue FC, Perth Glory, Chicago Red Stars, the Matildas — these teams have largely revolved around what the striker has offered them. Australian and American fans who’ve watched Kerr set goal-scoring records only to break them again the following season know that she has stood head-and-shoulders above most of her colleagues. But she’s had little to show for it by way of team success. Two championship finals without a trophy was her final contribution to the W-League and the NWSL before setting off for English shores.
It’s this remarkable rise that has resulted in years’ worth of backlash from fans and players alike when Kerr has been snubbed by international football’s top gongs. Her omission from global football’s most coveted awards has always felt like a glitch, a flaw in the voting system itself; a consequence, perhaps, of European and World Cup myopia. To the Australian and American audiences who have watched her since her meteoric rise began in 2016, Kerr has always been destined for greatness, the kind of player about whom clichés are written. She’s the big fish in the small pond, if that pond also included habitual World Cup winners and Fifa Player of the Year recipients.
Europe may not be a bigger pond, but it is a different one, and one stocked with increasingly larger fish. Like her penalty in France, the whole world will be watching if she sinks or swims. And that is the point: the whole world, not just one half of it, will be watching Sam Kerr. And they’ll be watching her in her prime, in a team where she may no longer be the one relied upon to do the heavy lifting — no longer required to be The Sam Kerr. Or maybe she will. It’s as if her growing list of statistics and awards — the back-to-back Golden Boots, the MVPs, the ESPYs and Asian Player of the Years — couldn’t be believed on paper, so she had to go there and show them herself; to plant herself firmly within Europe’s field of vision, almost daring them to continue ignoring her.
But this acknowledgment by a leading European organization before she’s even set foot on the continent is itself a demonstration of why she’s there: Kerr is a player who transcends the barriers that have kept women’s football clustered and on the periphery. Her top spot also signals a shift by global football’s media towards its female athletes and the systems that have kept some less visible than others. That may, in time, become her greatest contribution to the sport.
For now, the team titles that have remained conspicuously elusive are now on the horizon, and the individual awards — though she’s perhaps too modest to admit it — are suddenly, temptingly, within reach. This is a moment for a player who missed a World Cup penalty for Australia, but who is determined not to fall short of expectations again.
Because she did eventually lift her head out of her hands on that pitch in Nice. She turned and gave that stadium one last, steely look before standing up and moving on. That, more than the goals or the records, showed us who Sam Kerr is: a player who now carries a great weight on her shoulders, who stumbles for a moment, but who does not allow herself to buckle. She was already one of the best footballers to ever play the game, whether she scored that penalty or not. And now, as she stands on the shore of a new era, Sam Kerr finally has her chance to prove it.