Early FIFA Women’s World Cup Exit Inconceivable For Australia; Sam Kerr Must Play

"We need to balance how many minutes is she available, what are the risks..."

Early FIFA Women’s World Cup Exit Inconceivable For Australia; Sam Kerr Must Play

Image: Getty

Three points from two and the Matildas are staring down the barrel of an early FIFA Women’s World Cup exit on home soil – an unthinkable outcome at the start of this historic tournament. Sam Kerr, Australia’s talismanic captain and leader, returns from a calf injury that’s kept her out thus far; even at half-capacity, she must play to give the Matildas any hope of progressing.

It’s true what they say: a week is a long time in football. Following the opening day statement win in Sydney, the Matildas not only staked a claim in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup taking a crucial three points in Group D, but they managed to get over the line without their injured captain and all-time leading goal-scorer, Sam Kerr.

The result lifted the heavy weight of expectation – albeit momentarily – off this team, calming the nerves of the record-breaking 75,784 attendees within the Accor Stadium and the millions of Australian fans watching around the world. The Matildas had arrived in this tournament, proving to the rest of the teams competing and to themselves that this was so much more than just the Sam Kerr team.

Fast forward a week and the group has shifted somewhat, with Australia looking up the table at the two qualifying positions and the lofty weight of expectation has returned to Tony Gustavsson’s side. Although Australia dominated the game in the 3-2 loss to Nigeria securing 65% possession, with 8 shots on target, the only thing that matters is the result.

The Matildas are still the masters of their own destiny; a win against Canada would allow them to leapfrog their travelling opponents and guarantee qualification to the latter stages of the competition, setting up a mouth-watering tie with either England or Denmark from Group D. Australia’s final group match against Canada, therefore, becomes a must-win, and as such, a fit Sam Kerr must play.

Australia captain Sam Kerr has been sidelined for the opening two FIFA Women’s World Cup fixtures with a calf injury. Image: AP

Sam Kerr’s influence on this Australian team goes far beyond her goal-scoring prowess. Certainly, goals win games, but Kerr’s involvement against Canada will give her team the psychological advantage heading into the final group fixture. Winning the FWA Women’s Footballer of the Year – England’s highest individual honour – for the second consecutive year, Kerr is one of the best players in the world; a captain and leader, Kerr’s involvement will strike fear into the hearts of Canada’s players.

Head Coach Tony Gustavsson, however, has revealed a more conservative approach: “We need to balance how many minutes is she available, what are the risks, if we manage to go through to the playoffs, playing time and so forth.”

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Gustavsson is right to be cautious given the current epidemic of long-term injuries within the women’s game. Data provided by ACL Women Football Club reported that between 25-30 players have been forced to withdraw from their international sides during the World Cup due to ACL injuries – enough for an entire squad, suggesting that 195 elite players suffered an ACL injury last year alone.

Australia’s Champions League winner Ellie Carpenter only returned from a long-term ACL injury this year, the latest in a string of high-profile players who experienced long-term injuries with Spain’s two-time Ballon d’Or winning midfielder Alexia Putellas also sidelined for almost a year in 2022.

Australia’s coach Tony Gustavsson must decide whether he risks playing his star forward Sam Kerr. Image: AAP

An early Australia exit in Melbourne would be inconceivable. Gustavsson must strike the balance between risk and reward regarding Sam Kerr as it’s imperative she doesn’t aggravate the injury further. But if she’s underutilised and Australia bow out, serious questions will start to surface regarding the direction of this team with an embarrassment of riches at Gustavsson’s disposal. If Kerr’s fit, she simply must play.

“I think it’s definitely fair to say it’s a failure if we don’t go out of the group,” Gustavsson admitted. “Everyone here understands that. Of course, we want to go out of the group in a home World Cup, for sure. I’m the first to admit that, I will take ownership for that.”

Sam Kerr may have declared herself fit for tonight’s must-win fixture, but for the sake of Australia’s World Cup dream, an entire nation will hope she’s firing.