Sam Kerr’s tone barely changed. She hadn’t had time to think about it yet, she said. She put it to the back of her mind. She had other things to focus her attention on.
Her response muted to the point of bluntness, Kerr gave the distinct impression that the offer, to some the offer of a lifetime, was just another bullet point in a busy schedule, another item on her to-do list: Barcelona on the way. Liverpool in the league. Westminster Abbey, to act as Australia’s flag bearer at the coronation of King Charles III. Everton away.
Of course, she said she was aware that being chosen by Australia’s prime minister to carry her country’s flag at the coronation was a “wonderful, wonderful honour”. It, she admitted, would probably be the kind of thing she “will be telling my kids about in 10 or 15 years.”
Only the idea of it didn’t bother her. Indeed, such was her no-nonsense that she admitted her first instinct when offered the role was to turn it down. She thought she was too busy to attend a coronation. She assumed she would have a training session that day. She didn’t want to miss training simply to carry a flag.
Those who know her, however, would offer a supplementary explanation. Kerr has long been regarded as perhaps the best player in women’s soccer. She was, for a time, the highest paid female player on the planet.
Her teammates, colleagues and friends are unanimous in asserting that nothing brought by that status – the profile, the money, the attendant pressure – has left the slightest mark on her. “She looks really cool,” said her Australian teammate Mary Fowler. “For any of the pressure I can feel, it’s multiplied for her. So I’m like: Suggestions for her to be able to deal with that and find like it doesn’t affect her.
That, she said, is just who Kerr is. It’s also exactly who Australia needs her to be this month as she prepares to carry her country on her shoulders once again at the Women’s World Cup.
At 29, Kerr has been a superstar for some time. Four years ago, when Chelsea prepared their bid to sign her, the club’s management had to present a case for the investment. Both the payment to acquire her services and her salary were, at the time, large commitments by the standards of women’s soccer.
Their case was that the money was dwarfed by her marketability. Kerr was, by that stage, the face of the sportswear manufacturer Nike in Australia. The possibility of her signing was a driving force in the decision of Optus Sport, the Australian broadcaster, to acquire the rights to the Women’s Super League in England. The Chelsea board were told not to consider the idea that Kerr was expensive, but to see her signing as a bargain.
This summer proved that. Kerr is the undisputed star, the main event, the central character of not just the biggest Women’s World Cup in history, but a World Cup that Australia desperately hopes to win on home soil.
Her image was plastered all over the country. She is front and center in all marketing campaigns of the tournament. She was featured, along with Princess Leia and John Lennon, in a mural in the hip Sydney suburb of Marrickville, and she is on the cover of an updated edition of the FIFA video game. She published an autobiography. She is, as her former teammate Kate Gill said, the “poster person for the team”.
Seemingly every major news outlet reported on her upbringing in Fremantle, just outside Perth, in Western Australia, detailing her family’s rich sporting background – both her father and brother played Australian Rules football professionally – and her rise to prominence in a sport that. she and her family initially “hated.”
“She’s everywhere here,” said Jon Marquard, the TV and media executive who put together that Optus deal. “If there is an icon of this World Cup, it is her. The position she is in is actually quite an unusual thing. In universal respect, I can think of no one who is her equal.”
Her sporting peers in Australia, instead, lean towards the historical, those whose legacies have only been burnished over time: the runner Cathy Freeman, the swimmer Ian Thorpe, the tennis player Ashleigh Barty. Her current peers, even in the traditional national sport of cricket, both codes of rugby and the AFL, do not compare.
In a nation as consumed by sports as Australia – “sport for many Australians is life, and the rest is a shadow”, as the essayist and thinker Donald Horne said in 1964 – this is a considerable honour. Marquard puts that wide popularity down not only to Kerr’s achievements, especially outside Australia, but to her nature.
“We’ve historically had a bit of tall poppy syndrome,” he said, referring to a situation where a person’s success causes them to resent or criticize. “There’s a cultural ethos in Australia in general of not getting over yourself. Anyone who does tends not to be seen as authentic, and that’s central to the culture.
“You can respect what someone like Nick Kyrgios has done, but he can be quite divisive. Whereas Sam has none of that pride. She is seen as genuine. The whole team is, really: You see them spend ages chatting with fans after games. Even with all the demands on her, Sam stayed pretty grounded. It is quite remarkable.”
Australia defender Steph Catley put it rather more succinctly in comments to The Sydney Morning Herald. “She’s out there,” she said. “She’s very much like: ‘Blah. I’m Sam This is me.’ She still is.”
That means, rather than being intimidated by her status — and the expectation now heaped on her shoulders — Kerr seems not only to welcome it, but to encourage it. She spoke, semi-regularly, about her hopes for this tournament and what it will provide for her – and will provide for women’s soccer in Australia – what she calls a “Cathy Freeman moment”, a reference to the runner’s iconic victory in the 400 meters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Leading Australia to World Cup victory in the same stadium, Kerr suggested, would have much the same effect on a later generation of Australians.
“If the pressure isn’t there, it probably means it’s not that big of a game to be honest,” she said this month. “Pressure is a privilege, and I love pressure. I love being in a moment where one or two moments can change the path of your career, really, and I think this World Cup is one of those moments.”
By the time Kerr allowed herself to think about her exact role at Westminster Abbey in May, she admitted she was getting just a little nervous. Only she had to take a few steps in front of the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, but she had to do it with the Australian flag on her shoulder and the eyes of the world on her.
This was the first coronation she attended this year. Her hope is that there will be another, and one in which she will have a significantly more prominent role. The difference is that this time she is not nervous at all.