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
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