Virtuoso Sam Kerr underlines success of W-League marquee concept

Richard Parkin
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Sam Kerr performs her trademark celebration after her a hat-trick against Melbourne Victory.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images</span>
Sam Kerr performs her trademark celebration after her a hat-trick against Melbourne Victory. Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

What more is there to write about Sam Kerr? By the numbers, she’s unstoppable. 69 goals in 96 W-League appearances, 16 goals for the season, a record 13 in the regular season – equaling the league’s best-ever mark, set by her last campaign. She leads the league for chances created (45), for shots (62); she’s even equal-second on assists. She scores, she sets up, she leads with the armband.

But even in a game in which she’s banged three goals and provided the assist for the fourth, there’s so much more to Sam Kerr than just goals.

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In the 115th minute with the match seemingly secure at 4-2, Perth looked for one last piece of security. A ball was played by her Chicago Red Stars teammate Nikki Stanton looking for Kerr, the most advanced player on the pitch, who had run off the shoulder of the last defender. It was intercepted, and Victory looked to spark a counter attack. Kerr tucked her head and powered the legs – an 80m recovery run, eventually forcing Emily Gielnik wide and away from danger at the concession of a corner.

For all her talent, it’s her hard work, her humility and her quiet determination that makes Kerr such a formidable player, and asset to the game. The individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo; the team ethic of Carles Puyol.

And for all this, it’s terrifying to think that East Fremantle-born phenomenon is just 25. Greater accolades may yet beckon. Rumoured to have attracted heavy interest from the top leagues of Europe, this could be the last we see of Kerr in Australia. As the record top goalscorer in the National Women’s Soccer League in the States, the likes of Lyon and the prospect of the UEFA Women’s Champions League may come knocking, especially with the forthcoming World Cup in France.

All of which underlines the value of FFA’s decision to hand Kerr a record W-League marquee contract this season.

As Kerr’s exploits go global in this increasingly digital age, so too does the reputation of the W-League. From humble beginnings just over a decade ago, the league is expanding and improving exponentially – a point illustrated by three of Kerr’s teammates from Sunday’s remarkable semi-final: Rachel Hill, Kim Carroll, and Leticia McKenna.

In the 2008-09 season, seven overseas players made their way to play in Australia – this season all nine teams used their full complement of visa players, bringing that number to 36. But for Kerr, Hill might have been considered the standout, best-on-ground against Victory, with the US import at the heart of Glory’s best moves, combining with Kerr with aplomb and terrorising Melbourne’s backline with her pace.

Not quite in the league of the Alex Morgans or Megan Rapinoes, Hill hasn’t quite cracked the US national team, despite junior honours, but with two seasons under her belt in the NWSL, Hill is building a year-round professional career, cashing in on the complementary calendars of the W-League and the world’s best domestic competition. And incrementally lifting the playing standard of women’s football in Australia.

With over 50 caps for the Matildas, Carroll is a vastly experienced campaigner and had a massive hand in Glory’s win on Sunday, marshalling Perth’s backline and bringing rugged physicality to the contest with Melbourne’s twin “talls” of Natasha Dowie and Gielnik.

Aged 31, Carroll is a bridge back to the generation of talented Matildas who forged a path for professionalism well before the league’s financials could equal the players’ passion. So many of those players have been lost to the game, but thanks to a hugely improved collective bargaining agreement ahead of the W-League’s 10th season, an enshrined minimum wage floor of around $12,500 has seen the amount of players on near-professional contracts grow to 200. Veterans are hanging in, and their wealth of experience is retained and passed on.

Professional Footballers Australia, the players’ union, is targeting “60 at 60” – 60 players on salaries of $60,000 annually, ahead of major global tournaments like the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and 2023 Women’s World Cup.

It’s here that Kerr’s reported $300,000 marquee contract has a headline effect. It’s the massive outlier that acts as a point of inspiration – with those next along the line, a Caitlin Foord or Elise Kellond-Knight, or young Matildas of Generation Next like Ellie Carpenter and Mary Fowler to aspire towards.

And if $12,500 still sounds paltry, remember this – when Kerr returned to headline Perth Glory’s renaissance ahead of the 2014 W-League season the entire Glory W-League squad, including six Matildas, was paid less than $50,000. That’s 23 female players earning less than the minimum wage for one A-League player – just five years ago.

In 16-year-old McKenna, Glory’s semi-final winning team also boasted one of the league’s most promising young talents – a third component of the continued growth of the W-League and women’s football in this country.

Last season, 13 players aged 17 or younger made 56 appearances in the W-League – almost 3,000 minutes of professional game time, in addition to the week-in, week-out experiences of training alongside Matildas, former Matildas and an armada of foreign stars.

While the A-League struggles to produce a viable professional pathway for talented youngsters, the W-League is blooding millennials faster than the Unicode Consortium can create new emojis.

When Kerr is eventually acclaimed as the world’s best female player – a feat she almost achieved in this year’s global list by Guardian of the 100 best female footballers – a 16-year-old from WA will remember the time she put on the assist for the world’s greatest in a W-League semi-final.

It’s a heady cocktail. Talented youngsters, experienced veterans and value-adding imports. Throw the mercurial Sam Kerr in on top and it is little wonder the W-League and women’s football in Australia is thriving.

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