Sam Kerr has always been a footballing juggernaut. Finally, the rest of the world is catching up to her

Like so many of football’s great moments, this one felt like it happened in slow-motion; as though the universe wanted us to appreciate every small detail — every twitch and flex of muscle, every quirk and bend of physics, every vibration in the air — that made it possible.

Sam Kerr watches the ball fall towards her, not dropping from the sky so much as being gently lowered into her path by some invisible hand.

Reflexively, her body prepares to receive it: arms stretching balletically for balance, right leg coiling backwards.

Her eyes do not waver; they follow the ball from its highest arc all the way down, right to the invisible spot mid-way up her calf where she knows she will hit it.

Sam Kerr’s two goals against Arsenal handed Chelsea the FA Women’s Super League title and her second Golden Boot in as many campaigns.(Getty Images: Catherine Ivill)

And she does. Sweetly, perfectly. The angle and force of her foot creates a top-spin that changes the ball’s trajectory entirely, looping up and over and back down again before settling into the back of the net.

It’s a stunning goal, the type that you know, as it’s happening, is one of the best.

But there’s few there to see it.

Certainly nobody to gasp and applaud, to upload instant highlights of every angle to social media, or nominate it for Goal of the Season.

There’s just an 18-year-old Kerr, kicking a ball around in the low light of a Canberra football pitch, watched by her team-mates, a blogger, and a scattering of native birds.

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That was 2012, when Kerr was slowly emerging from the first serious injury that almost ended her career.

It’s an innocuous video, really. A casual, if slightly nervous, teenager standing on the grass at the Australian Institute of Sport, wrapped in a black hoodie, learning how to answer interview questions on camera.

But even back then, you could sense it: the same relaxed, joyful attitude that has come to characterise her entire playing style. You can feel her wanting desperately to overcome the thing that’s holding her back — which, more often than not, has been herself.

A decade on, the same freedom and delight in football that saw her score that training-pitch goal is the same that saw her score one of the most iconic goals in Women’s Super League history: a spin-and-volley of such outrageous technique and timing that, this time, it actually did go viral.

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Aussie Sam Kerr leads Chelsea to a third title in a row(Optus Sport)

And Kerr was just as nonchalant about it afterwards as she was 10 years ago.

“Just get it in the back of the net,” she shrugged on the broadcast coverage.

“The first one, it just popped up. I don’t normally hit it left foot but thought, ‘why not? Give it a crack.’ And then yeah, top bins.

“And then the second one […] it sat up nicely and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna whack it.’

“Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t. But a really big part of my game is seeing myself in moments before it actually gets there, so when it comes, I feel super calm.”

That’s the thing about Sam Kerr. She has always been this way. The talent and focus has always been there — if a little unrefined, if a little rusty and raw, if a little delayed by the two major injuries she sustained aged 18 and 21.

Two female soccer players, one wearing purple and one wearing white, during a game
Even as a 15-year-old, Kerr’s coaches could see there was something different about her.(Getty Images: Robert Cianflone)

Talk to any of her earliest coaches and they’ll say they saw it before anyone else did.

“Even back at that age, she was just somebody who would do something and you’d go ‘wow, who’s this girl?’ She just had those qualities,” said former Matildas coach Tom Sermanni, who handed Kerr her first national team cap as a 15-year-old.

“People talk about playing with a smile on your face, and playing football like you really enjoy it, and giving everything you can – she had that from the minute she walked in the team.

She was never afraid of trying the audacious, of trusting her body to do the things her ambitious mind wanted. Increasingly, over the years, those two aspects have aligned.

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“For someone who was still at a relatively young age, her dedication to getting better in what she wanted to do was the thing that shone through, and the thing that’s continued to serve her so well,” said Jamie Harnwell, Kerr’s head coach at hometown club Perth Glory where she began her transition from winger to striker in 2014.

“Certainly the after-training finishing (practice), we had some really great role models, Kate Gill would do the same thing, she’d be doing extras, Collette McCallum had been around the game for ages taking free-kicks and doing the works.

Her dedication off the pitch has translated into success on it.

Starting in 2012, she has won more individual accolades and broken more records than almost any other Australian athlete in history: seven Golden Boots on three different continents, 10 team trophies across several competitions, multiple MVP awards and Team of the Year selections, even an Order of Australia — the first ever presented to an active footballer — in the same year she became the country’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

So, if she has always been a superstar, what’s changed?

It’s that now, finally, the rest of the world is paying attention. And they cannot get enough.

Anything Kerr does — be it scoring goals or celebrating them, winning prestigious awards alongside the best in the men’s game, flattening pitch invaders in otherwise-forgettable matches, even sharing a moment with her partner on Instagram — immediately generates a flurry of activity.

Sam Kerr shoves pitch invader
If football doesn’t work out, rugby could be Sam Kerr’s next sport of choice.(Getty Images: Warren Little)

And that has created an interesting shift not just in Kerr’s life, but also in the larger momentum of the women’s game.

Because the 28-year-old is now entering the rarefied air often reserved for her male counterparts: the world of athlete-as-celebrity, the world where she is no longer the moral spokesperson for the club or the sport she represents, the world where she is no longer begging for coverage.

Instead, these days, coverage is begging for her.

One-on-one interviews with Kerr have become almost impossible to secure. Journalists flock to any all-in opportunity they’re offered. Layers upon layers of management insulate her from the nastier parts of stardom, giving her the autonomy and power to control how she spends her energy, and to whom she gives her time.

This one sign, perhaps, that the women’s game is truly progressing: its brightest players are no longer treated as charity cases of media coverage, and that they no longer feel a sense of responsibility to promote their game to anyone who bothers paying attention.

Kerr is arguably the first woman footballer to flip the dynamic. A decade ago, women footballers like her were lucky to have any media interest at all. Now, you’re lucky if Kerr is interested in you.

Microphones surround a woman who's speaking in front of a branded backdrop
Kerr is now one of the most recognisable footballers on the planet.(Getty Images: Matt King)

And while this protective bubble may suggest a kind of distancing from the community that has evolved around her, Kerr remains by all accounts entirely herself to those that matter: her friends and family, her team-mates, her staff, her fans.

She is still the relaxed Fremantle girl cracking jokes in the corner of the dressing-room; the loyal friend who’d put it all on the line for those she cares about; the bubbly, fearless teenager who tries ridiculous things at training just because she can, or because it gets a laugh.

Tonight, she will play at Wembley in her second straight FA Cup final in front of over 50,000 people.

The last time she was here, she was named Player of the Match after scoring two audacious goals, including a chip that gave Chelsea a commanding 4-2 win over Arsenal.

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If she wins this weekend, she’ll add another paragraph to her already-heaving chapter of history: becoming the first Australian to win two FA Cup finals.

And the world’s media will be there, watching and dissecting and discussing her every move.

Her dynamic runs will be analysed on computer-generated models, her goal contributions will be broken down from every high-definition angle, her celebrations will be tweeted and shared and liked, and she will be swamped by journalists and fans in equal measure after the final whistle has long faded into the Wembley sky.

Her abilities on a pitch have rarely, if ever, been questioned. But before Sam Kerr became Sam Kerr, they were also rarely seen.

A lot has changed in the decade since that cool Canberra afternoon where a young Perth girl tried trick-shots for fun and learned what it was like to speak into the barrel of a camera.

Not only has the Matildas captain cemented herself as one of the game’s greatest ever players, but the rest of the world is now starting to realise it, and are finally giving her — and women’s football — the spotlight they have always deserved.

Reference-www.abc.net.au

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