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Sam Kerr’s penalty demons return in Matildas’ Olympic defeat to Sweden

Sam Kerr’s penalty demons return in Matildas’ Olympic defeat to Sweden

  • Sweden come from behind to win 4-2 in Group G match
  • Australia’s captain scores twice but also misses from the spot

Last modified on Sat 24 Jul 2021 08.40 EDT

Sam Kerr would not have forgotten the weight of the silence that stretched and warped the world around her as she stood staring at the ball she had just launched over the crossbar in Nice in 2019. The Matildas had endured an onslaught from a determined Norway side, somehow stumbling into a desperate, exhausted penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final of the Women’s World Cup.

Kerr – her first major tournament as captain – stepped up to take Australia’s first penalty after Norway star Caroline Graham Hansen calmly buried hers. The camera zoomed in to show a face etched with furious concentration, as though calculating all the possible mathematical variables that have turned modern football analysis into a series of algorithms.

It was as if she had too much time to think about it; too much time to bluff and double-bluff. The calculations got in the way of the parts of football that are its actual beating heart: emotion, momentum, confidence, luck, intuition.

There was a similar sense of sprawling time as Kerr stepped up to take a penalty in the Matildas’ second outing of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics against Sweden. Eerily, even the camera-work was similar: the excruciatingly slow close-up of Kerr’s face as she stared intently at the ball she had placed carefully on the spot. In that moment, there is little doubt that she – like all those watching on – was transported back to that warm evening in Nice; those same backwards steps, those fierce eyes, those deep breaths.

There was, too, that same sense of momentum needing to be re-defined here against Sweden: a moment where Kerr could shift things back in her team’s favour. But as the ball clattered off Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl and was cleared away, along came that silence again: that feeling of having all eyes and hopes upon her and falling short. That is the weight of the stardom Kerr must now carry in her career.

Kerr’s penalty miss in France – the deflating energy of it – seemed to have a domino-effect that night, with Emily Gielnik, the next penalty taker, also missing. On Saturday in Saitama, it felt as though a similar thing occurred: the colour and belief ran out of the side. They conceded a fourth goal to Sweden 10 minutes later, all the momentum from their promising first half leaking away into the humid evening.

That miss, like the heat of Japan, seemed to drain something from Kerr, too. She had a one-on-one chance with Lindahl with five minutes remaining, but her shot was fatigued and lacking in confidence, as though she knew she wouldn’t score it even before it had left her foot.

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All of this despite the fact that Kerr had scored a brace against Sweden earlier in the game – two characteristic headers. But it was not enough, just as her various heroics in France could only carry the team so far. There, then, is another parallel to be drawn between those two tournaments: Sam Kerr is undoubtedly a once-in-a-generation player, but she has limits, just as this Matildas team does.

That is not to say Australia performed badly; in fact, their game against Sweden was, in parts, their best yet under head coach Tony Gustavsson’s tenure. But these are the moments upon which games and tournaments can pivot, accelerating one way or the other, and the Matildas are yet to put together a full 90-minute performance that makes it clear which way they’re headed.

Sweden – a side that, even while looking off-pace, managed to score four and secure their spot at the top of Group G – provided a fitting contrast in the sense that they do not have one Sam Kerr upon whom their fortunes often rely; they have many, including on the bench. That is, you feel, what separated them in the end and will shape their tournaments to come.

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