Giddy and gleeful and wild, the noise that rippled and crackled around Stadium Australia seemed to be laced, once again, with the magic that has settled on Australia for much of the last three weeks. It all, in that moment, felt destined, as if there was someone, somewhere, writing a script.
Only one thing had been missing from Australia’s World Cup. The last three weeks had been filled with exhilarating highs, exquisite tension, intoxicating hope. The country had fallen, head over heels, for the Matildas, grown unapologetically invested in their story, been captivated not just by their success, but their spirit.
All that remained was for Sam Kerr to fulfill her promise. She had, on the eve of the tournament, said that she wanted to deliver another Cathy Freeman moment, a single instant that would be etched in the country’s collective memory.
And just as she was running out of time to deliver it, there it was, materializing in front of more than 75,000 fans, sending a whole nation into raptures: Kerr, in the semifinal of a World Cup, weaving through two England defenders, driving a shot into the top left corner of the goal guarded by Mary Earps, drawing the game level, keeping the magic alive.
The thing with sports, though, is that they can be capricious and cruel. Australia — the stadium, the team, the country as a whole — was still floating when Lauren Hemp restored England’s lead eight minutes later. Australia would not have a second chance. Instead, England would add just a touch of gloss, eventually winning 3-1, taking its place in its first World Cup final. It did so in a stadium that appeared to have had the air drawn from its lungs. The spell had been broken, and so had Australia’s hearts.
There will, of course, be regrets. There always are. What if Kerr had not injured a calf a couple of days before the opening game, mainly, but countless smaller queries, too. What if Alessia Russo’s cutback for Ella Toone had been intercepted, rather than ended in England’s first goal?
What if, in those delirious few minutes immediately after Kerr’s equalizing strike, Australia had seized one of the glut of chances that came its way: Kerr, twice, but Cortnee Vine, too. What if Ellie Carpenter had not misjudged the long ball that gave Hemp her opportunity to restore England’s lead? What if Australia had found another goal in the dying moments, rather than Russo finding England’s third?
In time, though, those questions will be replaced by something else. Australia may have fallen in sight of the finish line. The dream that Kerr and her teammates had spread to the rest of the country may have been dashed.
But once the tears have dried and the disappointment has settled, that is not the only way this tournament will be remembered here. Instead, Australia will come to cherish the month in which the Matildas served not only to represent their country but, in some senses, to define it, too.
The game finished, Australia’s squad lingered on the field at Stadium Australia. Kerr, in particular, was reluctant to cross the white line, to disappear under the cover of the stands, to deal with the world that existed under the stadium. As she did so, though, thousands of fans remained in place, applauding her efforts, thanking this Australia team for all it has done. The spell had been broken. Their hearts had been shattered. But that is sports. There is no reason to have any regrets.