The noise, the hype, the billboards, the speculation. Then, finally, the goal. The eruption. The surge of collective belief pulled from the pit of doubt. It wasn’t to last.
Sam Kerr may have finally marked her arrival to the World Cup party in the style to which we’ve become accustomed, but even her brilliant long-range equalizer wasn’t enough to delay her exit for long.
As Lauren Hemp slipped past Ellie Carpenter to restore England’s lead eight minutes later, Kerr puffed out her cheeks on the halfway line. It was not to be the last time her face would betray her frustration, with two late missed chances punished by Alessia Russo, after stunning work from Hemp. As the final whistle blew, the Australian captain bent double, hands on her knees, the weight of a nation on her shoulders.
Given her hard-running display and starting berth, it was almost possible to forget about Kerr’s calf. The injury that dominated the opening weeks of the tournament had faded in significance as the Matildas blasted, cruised and then edged their way further than they’d ever been before.
England in ruthless mood
But, as in the last round against Colombia and their army of fans, England were in no mood to lay out the drinks and nibbles for a Stadium Australia party. And, for all the noise early on, Australia seemed in no real hurry to provide the entertainment. The hosts sat off England, allowing the European champions to dictate the tempo until their captain briefly set a new tone.
By that time, Ella Toone ensured England had a something more concrete. Hemp and Alessia Russo kept a throw in alive long enough for Toone to run onto the loose ball and slice a sweet strike home.
Given the impact of Lauren James earlier in the tournament, Toone would almost certainly have been starting this one on the bench, but for James’ sending off against Nigeria. It isn’t the first time she’s made an impact as a replacement, scoring the opener in England’s Euros final win from the bench with an equally memorable strike a year ago.
England built for success
With three successive World Cup semifinals and that Euros win, England’s investment in women’s football; from grassroots, through the Women’s Super League (WSL), to the expensive appointment of coach Sarina Wiegman to a well-resourced senior team; the foundations are well established. With Wiegman as their architect, England’s house is looking well in order.
Australia will hope that this tournament, a success in every way, will enable them to follow suit. Though in a better spot than many at this tournament, a crowded sporting landscape in Australia has often seen football pushed aside, with a domestic league that struggles to retain its best players a major challenge yet to be solved.
Important as it is, questions of legacy are for another day. For now, the players in green and gold are left with a mixture of pride and frustration that their opponents were, until recently, all too familiar with.
The optimists in the Sydney stands, Melbourne fan parks and Perth pubs will believe this team can improve. Others may struggle to see a better chance than a home tournament. Kerr, at the end, appeared to be in the latter camp.
Edited by: Chuck Penfold