August 2023. Victoria, BC. The wee hours.
Apparently, waking too early in the morning means a miserable start to one’s day.
Still, as the bright red numbers on my bedside clock flick steadily towards 3am, I beg to differ. I am anything but disoriented. Instead, quickly fully alert, I keenly await watching, live via television and in all its glory, a soccer game. The awkward 17-hour time difference between the west coast of Canada and Sydney, Australia be damned.
For certain, this is no regular sporting clash, rather a hugely anticipated Women’s World Cup Soccer semifinal. The hosts, affectionately known as the Matildas, against England.
The entire country crackles in anticipation. A rabidly partisan, 76,000 sellout crowd packs a sparkling Stadium Australia. Outside, and in all the major cities across the land, diehard supporters jam into designated viewing zones equipped with specially erected big screens. Gold and green everywhere. Face paint, scarves, toques, t-shirts, replica jerseys, homemade signs. Merchandise available at a myriad of shops and street kiosks. Radio, television, newsprint, social media in all their forms, awash with reports, updates, and opinions.
Moreover, a further eleven million Australians take in the action from home. The match becomes the country's most watched program, sport or otherwise, since the establishment of rating systems over twenty years ago.
I lean back on my couch, comfortable amongst a collection of cushions. Ready for play to commence. England, the Lionesses, favoured. But the proud and feisty Matildas, riding quite remarkable national fervor and support, in with a counter puncher’s chance.
Plus, they finally have Sam Kerr fully available.
It has been a difficult tournament for the superstar performer. A nagging calf injury, suffered in the immediate buildup to the global showpiece, rules her out for each of Australia’s three pool games. She then makes a ten-minute cameo in the round of sixteen meeting with Denmark before again appearing as a second half substitute in a thrilling, dramatic, quarter-final victory over France.
First capped for the national team in 2009, at the tender age of 15, Kerr is known for her speed, skill, and tenacity. For her “X” factor and clinical finishing in and around the penalty area. For her celebrated, post goal back flips. All combine to make her the most feared scorer in the sport.
The game begins.
True to form, a clash of contrasting styles. England, vastly experienced, calm and controlled. Physical and rock solid on defence. Yet, also dominating possession. Probing for weaknesses. Efficient and dangerous on the counterattack. In contrast, Australia, slightly frenzied, lacking composure at times, yet spurred on by fanatical home support, sheer adrenaline, and a chance to make history.
Half time. 1-0. Nothing more than England deserves, comfortably the better side in the opening frame. The Australian faithful slightly rattled. A collective hush hangs momentarily over the ground.
Then, out of nothing, Kerr rides to the rescue. In the 63rd minute she gains possession at midfield. On her own, advances towards a trio of opposition defenders. Somehow, she finds space where there is almost none. One last touch, then lashing an unstoppable bullet from twenty-five yards out. The ball literally screams into the top corner of the net. The crowd’s response is a heady mixture of unbridled joy and sweet relief, rolling in ever growing crescendos from field level to the top of the grandstands. As I watch from thousands of miles away, the explosion of noise brings a chill to my spine.
For the next few minutes, Australia rides the momentum. Controls play. Until a speculative long through ball is badly misplayed by a defender. England pounces, slotting home from close range. 2-1.
Still, the hosts never quit. Pepper crosses into the opposition box. Apply steady pressure. It pays off when suddenly, from a scramble, with only four minutes remaining to play, the ball falls invitingly to Kerr.
Unmarked, a mere six yards from goal.
A glorious chance beckons to level the scores. One she would normally convert in her sleep.
Alas, somehow, some way, this time the ball arrows just wide of the right-hand post.
The crowd lets out a blood curdling groan of disbelief and dismay. Kerr herself, hands on head, eyes downcast, mouth wide open, face lined with frustration, tries to process the situation.
Less than two minutes later comes a third England goal. The moment an entire nation knows for certain that the gig is up. The bedlam and clamor fade away, replaced, at least for a few minutes, by a deathly quiet.
No doubt, Kerr’s miscue weighs and will weigh heavily on her. It should not. In the final analysis, it just does not matter. Shorn herself of practice time, sharpness, and fitness due to injury, she can still take solace in the pride, joy and deep satisfaction of a World Cup team performance that washes inexorably over the whole country. One that is unlikely to vanish anytime soon.
Indeed, for a nation traditionally bound to rugby league, rugby union and Aussie Rules, for a nation still clinging on to the brilliance of Aboriginal Olympian Cathy Freeman back in 2000, something bigger is brewing. Namely, a nation falling totally in love with the world’s biggest and most popular sport.
One more game remains. A bronze medal encounter with an equally determined and competitive Swedish team. Both with the chance to finish the tournament on a high note. A chance neither will want to pass up.
May all the players, on both sides, go well.
And perhaps, hopefully, Sam Kerr will find herself once again in front of goal. One last opportunity to find the back of the net.
This time, I guarantee she will not miss.
Not from point blank range.