No magic, only heartbreak in Australia's Women's World Cup loss to Norway
NICE, France -- The match had ended minutes earlier, but still no one moved. The once rowdy Australian crowd, which started the night swaying and singing "Waltzing Matilda," fell silent. Several Australian players sat on the field, heads in their hands. Others, after crossing the field to shake hands with their Norwegian opponents, walked dazedly toward the sideline, wiping tears from their eyes.
The Matildas' World Cup run was over.
"It's heartbreaking," forward Caitlin Foord said after the match. "We came here to win the World Cup, and that dream's over now."
Before Saturday, the Matildas had shown incredible resilience while rallying around a new head coach installed just four months before the start of the World Cup, fighting back after an opening-round loss to Italy and overcoming a two-goal deficit to beat Brazil in the group stage. Saturday night, they gutted out the final 16 minutes of overtime against Norway down a player after defensive leader Alanna Kennedy was issued a red card. It seemed there was nothing the Aussie women couldn't overcome.
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"There are 23 players who can do a job and not just her," said midfielder Tameka Yallop, who returned to the starting 11 after missing the Jamaica match with a calf injury. "It's definitely not all on her back. There are more individual things we could have done in the game that might have changed it and not put us in that position. All credit to Sam for even stepping up and taking it."
Added coach Ante Milicic: "Only big players can miss penalties, because small ones don't take them."
After striker Caroline Graham Hansen netted the opening penalty for Norway, Kerr walked to the box to start things off for Australia. No penalty kick is a gimme. Just ask anyone who has ever taken one. But Kerr is one of the most lethal strikers in the game and for 120 minutes had played relentless, focused football. Surely, if anyone could be counted on to make a penalty kick look routine, it would be her.
"I'd been trusted to take it, and I was confident to take it," Kerr said post-match. "I just skewed it."
As Kerr walked back to join her teammates, the Norway sideline erupted.
Next, Norwegian midfielder Guro Reiten sunk her attempt, goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth denied Emily Gielnik and the match slipped further away from the Matildas. Only Steph Catley's penalty found the back of the net for Australia, but by that point, it was too late. Norway took the shootout 4-1.
"I feel like I let the team down, but they've been quick to cut that out," Kerr said. "The girls have already gotten around me. I'll grow from this and become a stronger person mentally. It's obviously disappointing, but I'm proud of the girls. They fought back hard to get into this game, fought back hard to get into this entire tournament. We'll come back from this."
There's a lot to unpack about this match, certainly one of the most thrilling of the tournament. But here are five key moments from Australia's final match of this World Cup.
The first 15
When asked during Friday night's news conference who would win between Australia and Norway on their best days, Milicic said his team had yet to perform at its best. That changed Saturday night -- for 15 minutes, at least. At the outset of the match, the Matildas were cohesive, disciplined, communicative and tireless. Their defense played as if to silence the criticism that's been heaped their way over the past two weeks, connecting passes and holding the ball while the offense took chance after chance. Unfortunately, no points are awarded for a well-executed game plan if the ball doesn't find the back of the net. And when forward Isabell Herlovsen opened scoring for Norway in the 31st minute, the Matildas defense began to play anxiously and hand over possession, and the momentum shifted.
VAR strikes again
Saturday night, the VAR reviews did not bounce the Matildas' way, with the most controversial call coming in the 42nd minute, when Norway defender Maria Thorisdottir appeared to use her right arm to deflect a cross from Aussie defender Ellie Carpenter. Referee Riem Hussein called a handball, and Kerr stood for an extended period waiting to take the penalty as multiple reviews were made, including a VAR review and a sideline review by Hussein. The handball penalty was eventually overturned, and the Matildas will never know what might have been. "I would have loved to have seen that back on replay," Yallop said. "I only saw it from my angle, but I thought it threw a lot of momentum into the ball in clearing it, and the ball was going directly to one of our players. I thought it was definitely a pen."
The loss of defender Alanna Kennedy
The Australian crowd was invested in this game, loudly booing several calls -- and non-calls -- but none louder than when Kennedy, who has been a standout for the Matildas all tournament, was issued a direct red card for grabbing the shirt of striker Lisa-Marie Utland in the 104th minute. While VAR reviewed and eventually confirmed the call, the Aussie players gathered around the referee to plead Kennedy's case, but the call was upheld. That Kennedy watched the final moments of the match from the changeroom -- or rather, didn't watch, as she was unable to locate a working TV -- was heartbreaking for her, and it was arguably the wrong call by the ref. "I think there needs to be a lot more clarity around the decisions of the referees. I think [the officiating] has been questionable throughout the whole tournament," Kennedy said, "and that's not the way we want to play." Kerr saw it differently, though: "We're not going to blame our loss on the refs. They have a tough job out there. She was nice and respectful, and that's all you ask of them. She wasn't the reason we lost today."
At the end of full time, the Matildas were executing on all fronts. They led in possession, accuracy and shots on goal. But in the end, after 120 grueling minutes, the match came down to penalties. Aussie goalkeeper Lydia Williams had been brilliant all night. She blocked six shots and sent two long-range attempts over the goal bar. But penalty kicks are essentially a roll of the dice, and Saturday night, the dice rolled Norway's way.
The parting shot
The Matildas are ranked No. 6 in the world and advanced to the quarterfinals in the 2016 Olympics. To say an earlier exit three years later is disappointing would be an understatement. These women believed they had the talent to win this tournament, or at least make a run at a medal, and certainly to win three matches in a row at a World Cup for the first time in team history. Because they didn't, the "whys" will be dissected in the days to come. "Anytime you don't win the WC you've underachieved," Kerr said. "We're obviously really, really disappointed and feel like we've let ourselves down. We've had real confidence in our team, always stuck together, and it sucks to go out on a penalty shootout. But the grind continues. Now we try to qualify for the  Olympics."