Alanna Kennedy watches the ball spin out for a corner and jogs gently upfield. Her captain and Matildas teammate, Sam Kerr, is already in the penalty area, bouncing around on her toes like coiled springs.
Steph Catley, Australia’s deadliest set-piece taker at these Tokyo Olympics, takes three steps back from the corner flag and pauses. The box is a tangle of yellow and white. As Catley begins her run, so does Kerr, the gravity of the Chelsea striker’s reputation tugging three of Great Britain’s players towards the front post.
Kennedy was banking on this. The centre-back ghosts into the void Kerr’s magnetism left behind her. She launches herself into the humid Kashima night and connects perfectly with Catley’s curling cross. One-nil; almost totally against the run of play. Just over half an hour has gone and the game is crackling with unpredictability.
Of course, it had to start with Kennedy: the player whose missed penalty at the 2016 Rio Olympics saw the Matildas bundled out at this very stage. The still image of the 21-year-old’s face buried in her hands, standing shatteringly alone in that vast green expanse, has now been replaced with one of her sliding, Superwoman-like, along the turf as teammates tumble around her.
It was a celebration as well as catharsis for Kennedy and for the Matildas: the tension of the last five years building, reaching its climax against a Great Britain side favoured to sweep past a team that some had started to doubt could reach the heights we always hoped they could.
That tension was palpable on Friday, too. Once the adrenaline of the first quarter-hour had passed, Great Britain – a squad bloated with talent – began to impose themselves on their underdog opponents. Passes were more accurate, runs more explicit, chances more likely. And yet, you felt there was always something on Australia’s side.
Britain’s metronomic midfielder Keira Walsh had a fizzing strike ping back off a post. Lauren Hemp, the dazzling 20-year-old Manchester City winger, latched on to a deflected cross only to be denied by Australia’s standout player, goalkeeper Teagan Micah. There have been many times the Matildas have been under pressure this Olympics, but here, against a star-studded side, they were under siege.
Rise, then, Kennedy: the perfect run, the perfect ball, the perfect header, the perfect moment of release. Little did we know it would foreshadow several more undulations. Australia come out in the second half flying, but three chances in 10 minutes go begging before the England striker Ellen White equalises: an almost mirror-image of Kennedy’s goal. One-one.
A double change just before the hour seemed to give Great Britain extra spark, an extra bit of cosmic momentum: a long throw is poorly cleared and falls to White, who dares not miss. Two-one.
Australia begin to fade: their exhausted bodies slick with sweat, their passes missing, their clearances rushed and desperate. They haul themselves through this oppressive, humid space as though fuelled by something deeper; something only they can touch.
That thing – that “never-say-die” spirit – showed itself as the clock ticked torturously towards its end. And just as this night opened with a moment of redemption, so too was it extended with one: Kerr, Australia’s marked woman, given that extra half-metre of space – that extra half-second of time – to bring the ball down on her chest, to twist and coil her body, to angle her foot just so. That she nutmegs England’s captain, Steph Houghton, while equalising, simultaneously equalling Australia’s all-time goalscoring record, was characteristic of the cheek and joy Kerr and this Matildas team have come to personify.
But the players who experienced that Rio heartbreak – Kerr and Kennedy – are just part of this tale. They are mentors here, too: sages to pass down this energy, this spirit, to those who will carry this team forward. Micah, Australia’s 23-year-old goalkeeper, played like a woman possessed; tipping and tumbling, punching and parrying. Her save of Caroline Weir’s penalty in the first moments of extra time did the same for her weary side as Kennedy’s opener did: a bone-deep reminder of who they are, what they are capable of.
Mary Fowler, too – the 18-year-old prodigy – proved it a minute later. In one fluid, Bergkamp-like motion, she plucked the ball from the air, spun and struck; the deflection spinning over a bewildered Ellie Roebuck and into the net. Three-two.
Five minutes later, Kerr was there again: leaping above the dejected Houghton to crash in a goal off the underside of the crossbar moments after limping her way back to help defend the lead. Australia’s captain, talismanic leader, history-maker: the beating heart of a group of players who, despite the circumstances of the past 18 months, achieved something that only they, you felt, ever really could.
Source : https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jul/30/matildas-embrace-never-say-die-spirit-to-keep-olympics-dream-alive1894