The understudies delivered when it mattered.
Looking lost and lackluster without its star player and facing a humiliating group stage elimination in front of an expectant home crowd, Australia finally produced a performance worthy of reaching the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup, advancing on Monday night at the expense of the Olympic champion, Canada, 4-0.
It was the fate of the star striker Sam Kerr, ruled out with a calf injury just a day before the opening game, that has hung like an immovable cloud over the Australian team throughout the tournament, reaching a fever pitch as the must-win game against Canada neared.
Without Kerr, the Chelsea forward who is considered one of the best players in the world, the Australians had barely resembled the team that had been discussed as potentially serious contenders for the championship. They stumbled to a barely merited narrow victory over Ireland before blowing a one-goal lead to lose to Nigeria.
Yet on Monday night, years of preparation and national pride on the line, Australia finally produced the type of performance that while necessary, seemed unlikely against one of the tougher teams in the tournament.
Nigeria joined Australia in the round of 16 after playing Ireland to a draw, 0-0.
That Australia’s journey continues will not only be a relief to its army of fans, but also to tournament organizers who faced the prospect of seeing both co-hosts eliminated within 24 hours of each other had Australia failed to get its job done. New Zealand on Sunday became the first host in the tournament’s history — it began in 1991 — to fail to make it through the group stage.
Yet despite all the pressure, Australia showed none of the nervousness and anxiety that plagued its earlier performances. Instead, it induced discomfort for Canada, a team that had experienced the pressures that come with playing in a home World Cup in 2015.
The dramatic backdrop to the game, the high stakes and the legacy defining 90 minutes were matched by the added drama of refereeing calls that first incorrectly ruled out Hayley Raso’s opening goal in the eighth minute and then failed to spot an offside as Mary Fowler put a ball into the net a few moments later. Both calls were corrected after video replays.
Canada failed to take advantage of the reversal of the goal that kept it within one score of tying the game, and the team quickly slid further. It would have advanced to the round of 16 with a draw.
Calamitous defending at a corner six minutes before halftime allowed Raso to score for a second time and set Australia on its way for an evening that was only surprising in how serenely the co-host was able to coast through what had been discussed in local media as not only a make or break night for the team and the tournament for the future of the entire sport in Australia.
The tournament, the biggest to be held in Australia since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was taking place at the same time as the Australian Football League, by far the most popular sports league in the country, was in full swing, along with rugby and cricket competitions that jockeyed for the attention of Australians. Elimination at the first hurdle for the Matildas would make soccer’s efforts in the battle for attention, eyeballs and revenue that much harder.
In Kerr, Australia had arguably its one truly global soccer star, making her absence bigger than it might have been for one of soccer’s heavyweight nations.
Speculation surrounding her readiness was also helped along by Australian management’s handling of the information surrounding her injured left calf. It called an unscheduled news conference on Saturday, presenting Kerr to the surprise of local media. Kerr spoke positively, saying she was ready to play. A day later coach Tony Gustavsson, facing the imminent risk of losing his job had Australia tumbled out, refused to say whether Kerr would play or not, saying instead that a decision would be taken just hours before the game.
Beverly Priestman, the Canadian coach, said her team would not allow itself to be distracted by the “smoke” or “head games” around the selection.
Gustavsson, as had been most likely given how little Kerr had practiced, decided to keep her on the bench. But even that was bold considering the magnitude of the game and what defeat would have meant for his own future, a fact he had acknowledged. In the end Kerr, wrapped up in the giant teal coat, was not needed as a substitute once Australia took control, allowing her to be a supporter for what will be remembered as one of the greatest nights in Australian soccer history.
She celebrated again when Fowler scored a third goal with 30 minutes left to play, again with a penalty in extra time and again as time expired.
A night that threatened to throw the hosts out of its own party instead will be remembered as a reprieve at the cost of one of the giants of the women’s game.
Canada, which won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, is now facing the long return home and the type of recriminations befitting its first World Cup group stage exit since 2011. There will certainly be changes afoot, not least the likely end to the career of the highest scoring player in international soccer. Striker Christine Sinclair, 40, left the match at halftime, having failed to score at a record sixth World Cup.
To cap what is surely one of the most humbling nights Canadian soccer has faced, it allowed a fourth goal in injury time, as Steph Catley buried a penalty to bring yet another roar from the capacity crowd, which by then was already in full celebration.