It sounds trite, but it is worth repeating: football is a game of the finest margins.
When Australian superstar Sam Kerr stepped up to the penalty spot after an exhilarating 120 minutes of football on Saturday night, an eerie silence settled across the Stade de Nice. Norway and the Matildas had gone toe-to-toe, end-to-end through regulation time, but nothing could separate these Women’s World Cup contenders. Another 30 minutes and even a red card to Australian defender Alana Kennedy didn’t give Norway a sufficient advantage to end a seemingly endless football match.
After Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen buried the opening spotkick, up stepped Kerr. Australia’s heroine. Joint first on the golden boot tally. Reportedly wanted by Chelsea, in a deal that would make her one of the highest-paid players in women’s football. The weight of the world on her shoulders.
And she skied it.
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“Only big players can miss penalties because small ones don’t take them,” Matildas coach Ante Milicic philosophised post-match.
This may be true.
One can’t help but imagine, though, an alternative universe where Kerr – a sporting superstar in Australia who has transcended women’s football – hits her penalty straight and true past Norwegian custodian Ingrid Hjelmseth.
Rather than crumble (Australia’s second penalty was saved), the Matildas overcome valiant Norway. They go on to face England in the quarter-final, in a grudge encounter to match the Ashes, and potentially proceed deep into the tournament.
But those counterfactuals are no consolation for Australian fans. Instead, they face a reality where the world number six-ranked Matildas have been bundled out in the round of 16. A golden generation, featuring the best striker in the world, are heading home far too early.
“What can you do?” Kerr pondered afterwards. “Penalty shootout obviously sucks. Any time you don’t win the World Cup you have underachieved.” And so Kerr and her Australians depart quietly into the night, with a sense of what might have been.
Football’s fine margins strike again.
At just 25, France 2019 is far from Kerr’s last World Cup. The question for Australia is whether they can keep pace in the new women’s football arms race, while European mega clubs throw money at the game (Real Madrid announced just last week the establishment of a women’s team).
But the intensity in Kerr’s demeanour as she fronted the press after the Norway loss suggested it would take a brave punter to bet against the Australians emerging stronger from this heartbreak, led by someone on track to become the best player in the world.
Real Madrid women's team: Who could join Las Galácticas?#RMCFhttps://t.co/0BHYVuvRtF pic.twitter.com/Vi4BEI3upE
— AS English (@English_AS) June 22, 2019
“The grind continues. Trying to get better. Trying to win the NWSL. Trying to qualify for the Olympics. The grind never stops as a professional footballer.
“We’ll come back.”
Around the grounds
It took a heart of steel not to feel emotional after the post-match interview that followed Brazil’s round of 16 loss to hosts France on Sunday. Speaking directly to millions of Brazilian women and girls, Marta – six-time FIFA player of the year – offered a rousing call to arms: “There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. The women’s game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end.”
This is unbelievable from Marta.
“Strength does not come from winning. It’s struggle and strain that develops your strength. It’s when you go through hardship and refuse to surrender that your real strength is grown.” pic.twitter.com/MYDuIrXXQ4
— Darian Wilken (@CoachDarian) June 24, 2019
There will be some added spice when the USA meet Spain on Monday evening. American defender Ali Krieger said during the group stage: “We have the best team in the world, and the second-best team in the world.” Spanish midfielder was having none of it: “Who is Ali Krieger?” she deadpanned.
Italy have been a surprise package in France, topping Group C. Can they reach their first World Cup quarter-finals since 1991? The Italians face round of 16 opponents China in Montpellier on Tuesday, and will have significant support behind them back home – Italy’s games have been smashing television records for women’s sport in the country.
The Dutch are among the emerging tournament heavyweights while 2011 champions Japan have underwhelmed. But at 7/2, the prospect of a Japanese upset when the nations meet in Rennes on Wednesday is enticing.
With Kerr and Brazil ace Cristiane out of the tournament, the golden boot race appears to be Alex Morgan’s to lose (she is currently equal first on five goals). But England’s Ellen White is lurking one goal behind with four, and the Lionesses have an easier run to the final than the United States. 10/1 is good value.
While USA and the French remain firm favourites to lift the trophy in Lyon, the Germans continue to quietly collect wins – they still have not conceded in France, while finding the net eight times. At 9/2, German to win the World Cup might be worth a shout.