Sam Kerr’s tone hardly changed. She said she hadn’t had time to think about it yet. She put it in the back of her mind. She had other things to focus her attention on.
Her answer was deadpan, giving Kerr the distinct impression that the show, for some, the show of a lifetime, was just another blip on a busy schedule, another item on her to-do list: Barcelona on the way. Liverpool in the league. Westminster Abbey, to serve as the flag bearer for Australia at the coronation of King Charles III. Everton away.
Of course, she said, she was aware that choosing the Prime Minister of Australia to carry her country’s flag at the coronation ceremony was a “wonderful and amazing honour”. It’s probably the kind of thing you’ll “tell my kids about in 10 or 15 years,” she admitted.
It was just that the thought of it didn’t bother her. In fact, such was her indifference that she admitted her first instinct when she was offered the role was to turn it down. I thought she was too busy to attend the coronation. I assumed she was going to have a training session that day. You didn’t want to miss training just to carry the flag.
However, those who know it will offer a complementary explanation. Kerr has always been considered the best player in women’s soccer. She was, for a time, the highest paid female player on the planet.
Her teammates, teammates, and friends were unanimous in emphasizing that nothing this situation brought—the profile, the money, the accompanying pressure—left the slightest mark on her. “It feels really cool,” said fellow Australian Mary Fowler. “For any pressure I might feel, double it for her. So I’m just like: props to her for being able to handle that and deal with it like it’s not affecting her.”
She said, that’s just who Kerr is. She’s also exactly who Australia wants her to be this month as she prepares to carry her country on her shoulders once again at the Women’s World Cup.
At 29 years old, Kerr has been a star for quite some time. Four years ago, when Chelsea were preparing their bid to sign her, the club’s management had to make a case for investment. Both the acquisition fee for her services and her salary were, at the time, substantial liabilities by women’s football standards.
Their case was that money dwindled due to their marketability. Kerr was, at that point, the face of sportswear manufacturer Nike in Australia. The possibility of her signing was a driving force in the decision by Optus Sport, the Australian broadcaster, to acquire the rights to the Women’s Premier League in England. The Chelsea board were told not to take into account the notion that Kerr was too expensive, but to see her signing as a bargain.
This summer proved that. Kerr is the undisputed star, main event, and central figure of not only the biggest Women’s World Cup in history, but the World Cup that Australia desperately hopes to win on home soil.
Her image was plastered all over the country. She is front and center in all of the tournament’s marketing campaigns. She is pictured, along with Princess Leia and John Lennon, in a mural in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, and is on the cover of an updated edition of the FIFA video game. She has published her autobiography. She is, as former teammate Kate Gill puts it, “the poster person for the team”.
Seemingly every news outlet has published a profile about her upbringing in Fremantle, just outside Perth, in Western Australia, detailing her family’s rich sporting background — both her father and brother played Australian football professionally — and her rise to prominence in the sport she and her family are in. The beginning is “hated”.
“It’s everywhere here,” said John Marquard, the media and television executive who made this Optus deal. “If there is an icon of this World Cup, it is her. The position she is in is actually quite extraordinary. In terms of universal respect, I cannot think of anyone on equal terms with her.”
Instead, Australia’s sporting peers veer toward history, those whose legacies have been slightly polished by time: sprinter Cathy Freeman, swimmer Ian Thorpe and tennis player Ashleigh Barty. Its current peers, even in the traditional national sport cricket, both rugby and AFL rules do not compare.
In a country as consumed by sport as Australia – “Sport to many Australians is life, and the rest is shadow,” as essayist and thinker Donald Horne said in 1964 – this is a huge honour. Marquard attributes this wide popularity not only to Kerr’s accomplishments, particularly outside Australia, but to her naturalness.
“We’ve historically had a little bit of tall poppy syndrome,” he said, referring to a situation where a person’s success causes resentment or criticism. “There’s a cultural ethos in Australia in general that you don’t outgrow yourself. Anyone who doesn’t tends to be seen as authentic, and that’s fundamental to the culture.
“You can respect what someone like Nick Kyrgios has done, but it can be totally divisive. Whereas Sam has none of that arrogance. He just saw it as real. The whole team, really: You see them spending ages chatting to fans after Matches. Even with all the demands on her, Sam has stayed completely grounded. It’s just so amazing.”
Steve Catley, defender for Australia, made this more succinctly in comments to The Sydney Morning Herald. She said, “It’s over there.” It’s just like: ‘Blah. I am Sam. This is me.’ It’s still like that.”
That is, rather than being intimidated by her stature — and expectations now piling on her shoulders — Kerr appears to not only welcome her, but encourage her. She has spoken, almost regularly, of her hopes for the tournament and what it will provide for her – and women’s football in Australia – in what she describes as her “Cathy Freeman moment”, referring to the sprinter’s victory in the 400 metres. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Kerr noted that guiding Australia to win the World Cup in the same stadium would have the same effect on a later generation of Australians.
“If there’s no pressure, it probably means it’s not much of a game, to be honest,” she said this month. “Pressure is a privilege, and I love pressure. I love being in a moment where one or two moments can change the trajectory of your career, and I think this World Cup is one of those moments.”
By the time Kerr allowed herself to reflect on her nuanced role at Westminster Abbey in May, she admitted she got a little nervous. All she had to do was walk a few paces in front of the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, but she had to do it with the Australian flag on her shoulder and the eyes of the world upon her.
This was the first coronation I attended this year. Hopefully, there will be another role in which she plays a significantly more prominent role. The difference is that this time she is not nervous at all.