At 29, Sam Kerr is a name synonymous with football. She’s surpassed gender and the limits of the Australian sporting landscape. And despite the enormous spotlight on her – presumably to keep her focus on performing on the pitch – Sam rarely does interviews.
But, when we start speaking about the Matildas, the FIFA World Cup campaign, and inspiring young girls, our animated chat extends far past our allotted 10 minutes – more than double that time, in fact, because Sam is so enjoying opening up – and it’s also very clear that all the precautions, shared by her team, are not remotely reflective of the kind of person Sam is.
People might remember a post-match interview with Sam that went viral during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. After her team beat Brazil she said, “There were a lot of critics talking about us, but we’re back. So, suck on that one!” That relaxed, warm and self-deprecating character we caught a glimpse of then is far closer to the real Sam Kerr.
A Sam Kerr whose Aussie teammates expressed to me earlier that day an enormous amount of admiration and gratitude for her leadership on and off the pitch. “To be able to get to train and just to talk with someone on that level? I’m fortunate to have that opportunity,” says forward Mary Fowler. “I’m really lucky to be able to not only watch her play, but watch how she leads a team and how she manages all that pressure. She’s a really good role model in that sense.”
Young striker Cortnee Vine was particularly impacted by Sam’s character in her response to the Matildas’ disappointing campaign in the most recent AFC Women’s Asian Cup tournament. “One of the things that stuck with me early on was at the Asian Cup, when we lost to South Korea. I asked her after that, ‘How are you going?’ And she just said, ‘There’s not much you can do about it now. It’s done. It is what it is. I’m obviously disappointed, but you’ve got to focus on what’s next.’
“That was a big thing for me because it was a big game to lose. But the mentality now to let something like that go, I think it’s massive. And as a striker myself, I do hold onto things a lot. She’s really taught me to let things go.”
Where is Sam Kerr from?
The shy girl from Fremantle, WA, who grew up wishing she could play for the West Coast Eagles in the AFL and ended up becoming the first woman on the cover of the FIFA video game instead, says her life has become something she didn’t dare to hope for. “I guess, for me, this stuff was never even doable when I was a kid,” Sam explains. “So, I never had dreams of doing all of this.”
Professional sport was, however, in the blood. Sam’s mother, Roxanne (née Regan) came from local sporting royalty: Her father and uncles played professionally in the West Australian Football League, while another uncle was a Melbourne Cup-winning jockey.
Meanwhile, her father, Roger, who was born in India, also had sport in the blood: His father was a featherweight boxer, while his mother played basketball. Sam started playing soccer at age 12, but not by choice. Before that point, she’d been following in her dad and older brother’s footsteps, both of whom were professional Australian Rules football players.
“I hated soccer when I was a kid,” she has said. “I never had a soccer ball around the house.” But at 12, Sam had reached an age where – at the time – Aussie rules had very limited options for young girls. And so she was pushed to pivot to the round ball game. Just three years later, she was wearing the green and gold in her first Matildas’ jersey.
“And that’s the part that I love most about what I’m doing,” she marvels, “that young girls growing up have a dream to do what I’m doing … That’s the amazing part now about being a young girl growing up, or a young boy: You can literally play any sport, anywhere in the world, for any team you want. Younger Sam had no idea that this was ever going to be possible.”
That same younger Sam would no doubt find it even more unbelievable to know she’s now about to lead her national side out for a home World Cup. This tournament feels like the last thing Sam has to tick off in her incredibly successful career, and right now, it’s all she can think about.
“I think about it nearly every day, that first game,” she says. “I love playing in front of big crowds. I love big stadiums. And that’s going to be an emotional moment for the whole team. I think about it every day. I think about it whenever I’m in the car. I catch myself dreaming about that first moment walking out of the tunnel with the girls. I use it every day just as fun to daydream about really, rather than motivation. I just can’t wait for that first day at the World Cup. It’s going to be amazing.”
Outwardly, she seems unperturbed by the public scrutiny, but at her core, Sam is far from immune to the pressure to succeed for her country. “It’s hard, honestly, being the number nine,” she admits. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself to perform for the team, but also, in the Matildas, I feel an added pressure because I’m the captain. I know a lot of people on the pitch look to me and a lot of other people off the pitch look to me. I try to always be what people want me to be, but at the same time, I’m also myself, and when I feel like I’ve let the team down, I’ve let myself down. And it’s really hard.”
The Matildas captain is a pro at handling criticism
Luckily, another important skill Sam has built up through her years in the spotlight is her ability to handle online trolls or critics. Her larrikinism shone through, back in 2021, after an exchange she had with a keyboard warrior who commented on one of her posts. When they proclaimed that they couldn’t “stand her as a human being”, she simply retorted with a few smiley-faced emojis and added that: “As you can’t stand me as a human being, you can gladly unfollow me & stay clear of my page … but have a great day.”
It’s clear she can have a bit of fun with the social media banter, but also makes sure to keep all that outside noise at an arm’s length by shifting the focus to what and who is most important.
“You’re always going to have critics,” she shrugs, “you’re always going to have people who don’t like you. I’m a football fan, too. I have my favourite players. I have players that rile me up. So, it’s not about them. It’s never been about them in our team. It’s always about the one or two kids whose lives you change. It’s not about haters. They’re always going to be there but it’s about people who you inspire, people that do amazing things, spend money to come and see you. It’s about all those people for who football brings so much good into their lives.
“Most of the time, when something big and drastic happens, I like to step away and close myself off from football. Get off social media, have a day or two just doing something completely random – you know, going to the beach, seeing my family if I can, or going shopping … I shut off more than people probably think. But stepping away from the game is my most important tool.”
In the lead-up to the home FIFA Women’s World Cup, so much of the storyline has surrounded Sam and the question of whether she can lead the Matildas to victory. On top of the pressure to perform, she’s starting to feel the pressure of the spotlight on her personal life too.
Sam Kerr’s fiancée is actually a professional rival
Her relationship with American soccer player (and FIFA rival) Kristie Mewis – whom she began dating in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and got engaged to in late 2023 – was kept secret for as long as possible in the knowledge it would fascinate fans and tabloids alike.
“We didn’t share it for ages,” Sam told UK online publication Gaffer earlier this year of their romance. “Then it got too hard to hide it.” But it’s her desire to not let anything distract her from the game that ultimately sees her deflect the press attention. And even more than that, it’s the influence of the Matildas’ culture.
The majority of the team have spent their most formative years together. “Most of these girls I’ve grown up with,” says Sam, and they see each other as true equals, as teammates, as sisters. “They know that I just want to be one of them,” Sam says now of her role as the face of the team.
“I obviously deal with [public attention] because I have to. I’m the captain of that team, so I have to lead in a way. But at the end of the day, I’m still human. I don’t like my face plastered all over everything. And I get a little bit shy when people are always talking about just me. So I like the load to be shared and I think I’ll just always be like that. I’ve always been a shy kind of person, I guess.”
And with that, it’s time to sign off and head back to what she does best – prepping for the game of her life. Now all that remains is to see if she can, once again, outperform expectations.
Stream Matildas: The World At Our Feet now on Disney Plus with a mth-to-mth no lock-in contract. Subscribe here.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup runs from July 20 to August 20.