WORLD AT HER FEET

Matil­das and Perth Glory su­per­star Sam Kerr is treat­ing the world to her ex­tra­or­di­nary soc­cer tal­ent — topped off by her trade­mark back­flips, re­ports David Davutovic

The Sunday Times - - NEWS -

WITHIN three years of kick­ing her first soc­cer ball in anger, Sam Kerr was wear­ing the Matil­das shirt. She had scored in an Asian Cup fi­nal win in just four years and fea­tured at a FIFA World Cup af­ter five. All by 17.

Life was a dream for the care­free ridicu­lously tal­ented sports star. Then the set­backs piled up, with knee and then foot in­juries stalling her promis­ing ca­reer.

Five surg­eries on, Kerr, 24, is tor­ment­ing de­fences the world over, scor­ing goals for fun and send­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of fans into a frenzy with her back­flip.

“If I stay happy and re­laxed and en­joy my­self, I nor­mally play well,” Kerr says. “I feel I have the abil­ity to play at my best if I’m do­ing all the right things and the last few years with my in­juries, I’ve put in the work to come back and be play­ing as well as I am.’’

Hap­pi­ness has tran­spired from hard work and be­hind the bub­bly fa­cade and cel­e­bra­tory back­flips is a steely de­ter­mi­na­tion that’s pro­pelled Kerr to su­per­star­dom. Ra­zor-sharp fo­cus has com­bined a tire­less work ethic with new-found pro­fes­sion­al­ism that in­cludes a fo­cus on an op­ti­mum play­ing weight. But she hasn’t com­pletely ditched her dress­ing room an­tics.

“I’ve def­i­nitely (toned down) my clown an­tics. But I’m not straight-down-the-line, se­ri­ous Sam,” Kerr says. “When it’s time to work, I buckle-down. I just want to be a pro­fes­sional all year, be­cause it is hard liv­ing away from home. I was con­tem­plat­ing whether I’d play soc­cer a few years ago. I had some pretty bad in­juries. I’m glad I stuck in the game and I’m en­joy­ing it.”

Matil­das leg­end and for­mer team­mate Kate Gill be­lieves the turn­ing point came even ear­lier.

“I have seen Sammy at her low­est. We were re­hab­bing an (an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment) in­jury to­gether (in 2012) when we were at (Perth) Glory. In hind­sight it was the turn­ing point in her ca­reer, I de­tected a big change,” Gill says. “It forced Sammy to ad­just her think­ing, to be dili­gent, com­mit­ted and de­ter­mined to do ev­ery­thing right be­cause if she didn’t, it could’ve been the end of her ca­reer.

“Dur­ing that pe­riod she grew up, she started lis­ten­ing to her body, eat­ing well, and re­cov­er­ing prop­erly and un­der­stood what be­ing a pro­fes­sional meant to her and what it would take.

“Be­fore the surgery, she was a cheeky, bub­bly kid, an ex­cep­tional tal­ent that hadn’t re­ally grasped how good she could be or real­is­ing the highs that it could take her to.”

As­ton­ish­ingly, Kerr had never played an of­fi­cial game of soc­cer be­fore age 12.

She re­luc­tantly signed up for her lo­cal soc­cer club Western Knights when one too many blood lips saw dad Roger re­move her from Aussie Rules. It was the height of the West Coast Ea­gles’ dom­i­nance, when her older brother Daniel formed part of one of the best mid­fields in AFL his­tory along­side Chris Judd and Ben Cousins, and Sam spent most of her time in the back­yard try­ing to em­u­late Ashley Sampi.

For­mer WA youth and Young Matil­das coach Ali Ed­wards says Kerr could have starred in any sport.

“She played foot­ball and (Aussie Rules) and she was great at net­ball. Net­ball was the one she was re­ally (favour­ing),” Ed­wards says.

“She’s an amaz­ing, nat­u­rally tal­ented ath­lete, just like Daniel re­ally. She’s got an amaz­ing leap. She’s al­ways been very con­fi­dent.

“I sat down with her par­ents when she was a teenager and said with foot­ball she can travel around the world. Now she’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ex­actly that — World Cups, Olympics, play­ing against Brazil.”

Kerr spent hours hon­ing her sport­ing skills in her back­yard, school­yard and on Aussie Rules fields, but her stun­ning skill quickly trans­ferred on to the soc­cer pitch.

“The first time I saw her she was 13 or 14, play­ing in an un­der-17 na­tional ti­tles for WA,” Matil­das coach Alen Sta­j­cic re­calls. “She was get­ting the ball and run­ning 50-60m and beat­ing ev­ery­one on her own. It’s not ev­ery day you see some­one with that ath­leti­cism or skill, at any level.

“The move­ment she has on and off the ball is the best in the world, that’s her real X-fac­tor.

“Her abil­ity to find spa­ces and un­der­stand the flow and rhythm and how space is cre­ated is nat­u­ral. Her aerial abil­ity is among the best in the world and the way she judges a ball, her depth per­cep­tion. Her foot skills have de­vel­oped dra­mat­i­cally.”

Aus­tralia has only seen the best of Kerr re­cently, but fans of Amer­ica’s Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League have been ex­posed to her raw tal­ent in spades as she has just com­pleted her fourth sea­son.

Kerr won the 2017 MVP award, booted a sin­gle sea­son-record 17 goals and be­came the all-time lead­ing goalscorer in the NWSL, which is re­garded as the world’s strong­est women’s soc­cer league.

In a coun­try where women’s soc­cer stars en­joy rock-star sta­tus, those feats have seen Kerr’s pro­file ex­plode and ac­count for a chunk of her 37,600 In­sta­gram and 19,800 Twit­ter fol­low­ers.

“I love play­ing for the club (New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC) and I think I play my best foot­ball over there. I was just a kid when I came to the States,” Kerr says. “I’ve ma­tured a lot and grown up a lot.

“The US play­ers are the big stars. I get recog­nised more in Perth, be­ing home­grown.’’

She gets recog­nised back home, all right. The Matil­das were last month named team of the year at the Aus­tralian Women’s Health awards, with Kerr sportswoman of the year ahead of a field of world cham­pi­ons in­clud­ing hur­dler Sally Pear­son, swim­mer Emma McKeon, mogul skier Britt Cox, high diver Rhi­an­nan If­fland and para-ath­lete Isis Holt.

WA is fiercely parochial and Kerr’s Perth Glory goals, a maiden Julie Dolan Medal (W-League player of the year) and her Matil­das feats have made her a lo­cal icon.

“We’re get­ting about 20-25 re­quests a week for Sam,” Glory chief ex­ec­u­tive Peter Filopou­los says. “She’s the high­est pro­file per­son at our club — men’s and women’s. She’s big news in Perth and changed the face of foot­ball in this State for women. What hasn’t gone un­no­ticed is that she’s one of the best play­ers in the world.”

Dy­namic strik­ers and goalscor­ers are the most mar­ketable com­modi­ties in any soc­cer team. Throw in ex­u­ber­ant cel­e­bra­tions and she is a pro­moter’s dream.

Gill, who un­til re­cently was the Matil­das’ record goalscorer, says Kerr is an ex­cite­ment ma­chine.

“She car­ries teams,” Gill says. “Ev­ery­one goes on about the Amer­i­can league, but Sammy ab­so­lutely de­stroyed it.”

Like most su­per­stars, as the hype rises, so do Kerr’s per­for­mances.

Matil­das team­mate Steph Cat­ley says Kerr is equipped for the lime­light. The 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics loom as her play­ground.

Kerr’s abil­ity to de­liver leaves her primed to trans­late her feats on to the big­gest of stages.

Primed: Perth Glory’s Sam Kerr at the launch of West­field W-League 2017-18 at Bondi. Pic­ture: Phil Hill­yard

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