‘We can feel the love’: Saint Sam Kerr returns to answer Australia’s World Cup prayers

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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images</span></figcaption></p>
<p>What a difference six words make.</p>
<p>For the past nine days, the hopes of a nation have hung off Sam Kerr’s left calf. Ever since the eleventh-hour announcement that the captain would miss Australia’s Women’s World Cup opener against Ireland, due to a calf injury suffered in training, Australian fans have waited anxiously for news on Kerr’s gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.</p>
<p>Television cameras have greeted her at airports; reporters have studied Kerr’s Instagram stories for clues; long lens cameras have remained fixed upon the Chelsea star as she stood on the sidelines at training sessions. After the Matildas lost to Nigeria earlier this week, leaving the home nation’s World Cup dreams on a precipice, Australia’s obsession with Kerr’s calf became manic. Would or wouldn’t the Matildas captain be available for a must-win match with Canada on Monday?</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Sam Kerr declares herself fit for Matildas’ must-win World Cup clash against Canada</p>
<p>The first hint that the calf might be healing on schedule came late on Friday, when the media were informed that Kerr would be speaking at a Saturday lunchtime press conference following a closed training session. ‘Calf-watch’ was on! But the fact of Kerr’s availability was open to divergent interpretation. Would this be good news, or bad news?</p>
<p>The timing was brought forward – reporters frantically raced for the team’s training base in suburban Brisbane. And then there she was. The myth, the legend, Australia’s great hope: Sam Kerr.</p>
<p>But the mystery that has shrouded Kerr’s calf would not dissipate immediately. The striker was first asked how the calf was going. Kerr responded optimistically: “I’m feeling good.” She was not otherwise forthcoming.</p>
<p>A second, more direct question followed – would Kerr play against Canada, and if so, how many minutes? She again parried – stating that she did not want to give too much away: “that’s a massive thing the opposition wants to know.”</p>
<p>Then at last, a sense of good news for the Matildas’ faithful. “I’m definitely going to be available,” Kerr said. Six words of relief, six words that could change the course of Australia’s World Cup campaign and lift the entire tournament to new heights.</p>
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Cagy but calm, Sam Kerr confirmed to media she will return to the Matildas team to play Canada on Monday. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

But even that answer was somewhat cryptic. A further follow-up only elicited a joke: “It’s hilarious because I have the biggest calves in the world.” It was as if Kerr was a boxer, dodging and weaving, as the Australian media sought to pin her against the ropes to confirm what the nation wanted to know.

Finally, four questions into the press conference, Kerr was asked point-blank. “Just to be 100% clear, you are fit to play if selected?” a reporter queried. The talismanic striker blinked, and then smiled. “Yes,” she said.

News alerts went off on phones around the nation; social media lit up. Sam the saviour was back, ready to rescue the Matildas’ World Cup campaign. This was the update Australia feared might never come. In one sense it is silly, this fixation on the calf muscle of one player. But for off-pitch symbolism, and on-field significance, the news could not be bigger.

Kerr has been the face of Australia’s half of this co-hosted World Cup. She is an iconic player with mainstream name recognition in a nation where football remains too often on the periphery, fighting against other sporting codes for coverage. Kerr is also a “spiritual leader” within the team, as several of her colleagues have said in recent days. It may be a squad of 23, but Kerr is first among equals. And most importantly, she can score goals: an average of one every two games during her lengthy national team career.

Immediately following the Nigeria loss, with a do-or-die clash awaiting and no news on Kerr, pessimism had swept the local footballing landscape. An early exit would be disastrous, for the Matildas, for coach Gustavsson, for the World Cup buzz in Australia.

The return of Saint Sam has offered a lightning bolt of invigoration. Whether or not the Matildas progress, at least Kerr will have played minutes at her home World Cup. And with Kerr available (plus the return of fellow striker Mary Fowler from concussion), there is suddenly renewed optimism that the journey won’t end on Monday night. The pressure will be immense – as it has been for the entire team. Kerr will have the weight of a nation squarely on her shoulders. But barely 48 hours before the must-win match, the striker seemed relaxed, unusually so.

She may have been coy about her exact role against Canada, cryptic about her fitness. But on Saturday, Kerr ended the press conference on a different note – an emphatic, defiant call to arms: Get on-board, Team Australia, for what promises to be the most important match in Matildas’ history, on-par only with the 2005 Socceroos’ penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay that sent Australia to their first men’s World Cup in decades.

On that November evening 18 years ago, 82,698 fans packed into Stadium Australia and went so far as to boo the Uruguayan national anthem. What did Kerr want from fans at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Monday? “Probably not the booing of the national anthem,” she laughed. “Everything else.”

For more than a week, a nation has fixed its attention on Sam Kerr’s calf. It had come good, and now, she suggested, it was the nation’s turn to reciprocate. “We can feel the love,” Kerr said. “The girls thrive under that. So of course whatever the crowd wants to bring, we’re willing to accept it. We need them. That’s the reason we play. As loud and proud as they can possibly be.”

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