Soccer

A breathtaking goal from Sam Kerr wasn’t enough to seal the finals for the team that has made this World Cup such a memorable national experience – at least the country is spared a tedious debate over a holiday.

By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Matildas’ wonderful ride

Footballers looking dejected on the field.
Australia's Hayley Raso and teammates look dejected after Australia are knocked out of the World Cup.
Credit: Soccer Football

Goons, poachers, glint-eyed thieves – had I written this immediately after the match, I’d probably have continued in this irrationally uncharitable vein. In the cold light of morning, though, my ugliness has softened, and the truth is obvious: England were better.

The European champions were more patient, more precise, more physical. Much more physical. After Sam Kerr was felled for the third time in the first 10 minutes, it was hard not to take it personally. Here, it seemed, was the revival of the old anti-Maradona tactic: treat Kerr’s legs like stubborn sheaves of wheat, and your own like swords. For an especially egregious tackle on Kerr in the tenth minute, Alex Greenwood was shown yellow.

But England’s formidability was more than weaponised shoulders and late tackles. This was their third consecutive World Cup semi-final. They had lost the previous two, and they now had the air of grizzled veterans whose past disappointment had made them ruthlessly committed to succeed this time. They dominated possession in the first half, possession that was both patient and purposeful, while Lauren Hemp, the game’s best player, ran amok. She would end the match with a goal and an assist.

In the 36th minute, a high, lobbed ball from Hemp was brought down perfectly on the touchline by England’s Alessia Russo, who turned her defender, then laid the ball back for Ella Toone, who creamed it unstoppably into the top right corner. The goal felt inevitable, the lead deserved. It was 1-0 at half time, the Matildas quite comprehensively outplayed.

The second half began more brightly for Australia. Mary Fowler was finally warming up, shaking off her relative anonymity in the first half. Still, something seemed to be missing – not least the telepathy that had bound certain members of our midfield and forward line against Canada. This time, through balls went unanticipated, left rolling into empty space like ghost ships.

But then, in the 63rd minute, a moment of brilliance and certain folklore. Sam Kerr, who had not had much to do until now, picked the ball up barely inside England’s half. Then she ran – and ran and ran. Three England defenders backpedalled before her, a corral that Kerr seemed hopeless to breach. It seemed as if Kerr needed support, and there was none to be seen. As it turned out, Kerr didn’t need any: after a surging run, she unleashed a howitzer from 25 metres. It was one of the goals of the tournament, an exquisite moment of skill. 1-1.

Two minutes later, Kerr made a scintillating run into the box. You could see that her goal had electrified her, that she had shifted gears, that she felt possessed of a glorious magic. This euphoric self-belief seemed to infect the whole team, who for the next five minutes or so were implacable. The tide, it seemed, had turned.

Alas. Our parity with England lasted only eight minutes, before Ellie Carpenter catastrophically blundered a long ball to Hemp, who gratefully poached a goal. 2-1 England, and that sudden Australian surge now seemed like a mirage. Kerr looked shattered.    

England retained their dominance of possession. They were composed. They had no compunction about running for the corner flags, withholding the ball, delaying goal kicks. They were professionals, after all – professionals who’d tasted too many defeats at this precise stage of a World Cup.

There was an intensely industrious period for the Matildas in the final 10 minutes, a flurry of opportunities, often involving the young Cortnee Vine, who was exceptional in her late cameo off the bench. But Vine’s bright runs down the right wing also served to contrast the fatigued legs of her mates. They were running on empty. In the 85th minute, an Australian corner was desperately punched away by the English ‘keeper, but her reach was limited by the scrum of players before her. The ball fell perfectly to an unmarked Kerr standing on the edge of the six-yard box. It was a gift, but Kerr blazed her volley over the bar.

And that was that. Australia had desperately remade its structure in the dying minutes, leaving just three at the back, and the very next minute England’s Hemp held the ball up, then charged through the middle, before playing a gorgeous through ball to Russo, who finished, clinically, at the far post. 3-1 England.

Of course, the sadness and disappointment will soon evaporate, replaced with pride and gratitude for the Matildas’ thrilling run – and for a memorable national experience. It was unthinkable after that opening match against Ireland that the Matildas would make the semi-finals, and do so largely without the services of Kerr.

Another silver lining: the Matildas’ loss at least frees us from the tedious political “debate” about a public holiday should Australia have won the World Cup. The huffing and puffing seemed perfectly representative of Australian politics for the past two decades – a passionately bitter argument about fuck all.

This is not the end, however: On Saturday, the Tillies will play Sweden for third place, while on Sunday Spain and England will contest the final. What a wonderful ride.

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