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The Weekly

The making of champions: Meet The Matildas' iconic soccer stars Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord

The Matildas’ star players, Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord, talk grit, gratitude and rising from the pits of despair to make Australia proud.

By Susan Chenery
Sam Kerr is widely considered the best female footballer in the world. Fast, athletic, audacious, dangerous on the attack, her technique and timing are dazzling.
Those feet – those electrifying feet – as they whisk the ball out from under the boots of her opponents.
The famous cartwheel and backflip – her customary show of exuberance after a particularly spectacular goal – something her mother says she taught herself at the age of 10 walking down a hill.
"I don't know where it came from," her mother Roxanne Kerr tells The Australian Women's Weekly with a very proud grin.
Playing for Perth Glory in the southern summer and the Chicago Red Stars in the winter, Sam is the all-time leading scorer in the US National Women's Soccer League and the Australian W-league – the first player to ever score four goals in one game.
But it is as captain of the Westfield Matildas that The Weekly spoke to Sam and her teammate Caitlin Foord, also known for her speed and power, in their final weeks of preparation for the FIFA Women's World Cup.
And this time the Matildas intend to win.
"Everything you do is for the World Cup," says Sam.
A team once seen as the underdog has become a serious contender.
Since winning the 2017 Tournament of Nations, beating the US, Japan and even the mighty Brazil, the Matildas have become known for their fearless, entertaining, bold brand of football.
And in 2019, for the first time, an Australian team is seeded at the World Cup.
"We've always known we're a good team," says Caitlin.
"Australians love a winning sports team and once we started getting the results, we kind of made them fall in love with us. It was just a matter of time before everyone noticed."
Sam with her adorable dog, boxer Billy. (Image: Frances Andrijich)
This will be the third FIFA World Cup for both of them.
Caitlin, now 24, was only 16, the youngest player competing, when she went to Germany in 2011, just a month after she had been called to the national team.
"I was so young and almost naive," she remembers. "I think that's why I performed so well – because I didn't overthink anything."
Both of them were hurly-burly tomboys and precociously sporty children.
"I was a very active kid, I would be outside every day at school playing every sport possible with the boys," says Caitlin. Both played AFL, until in Caitlin's case her Nan put her foot down because it was too rough.
"I did go for one try-out to play with my local team but my Nan told my Mum she would disown her if I played it."
Her mother Simone said she could try one game of soccer instead.
"If I wasn't any good, it wasn't going to be my sport because I was doing so many. I scored six goals in my first game, so Mum had no choice but to let me play."
For a talented child to become an elite athlete, families need to support and sacrifice, sometimes to the extreme.
Simone Foord drove her daughter on a 200 km round trip from their home in Wollongong to Sydney three to four times a week to train.
A single mother on a tight budget, she often struggled to find the money to pay for it all – the petrol, the equipment, the training and travel.
In 2009, she told the Illawarra Mercury that she didn't have the $1,500 deposit for an Australian Schoolgirls' tour of China, the UK and Ireland.
She was planning raffles and fundraising events, and was looking for sponsors.
"I will do whatever I can," she said. "She wants to one day play for the Matildas and I want to help get her there, no matter what."
"There were times when it was pretty stressful financially," Simone admits now, "but mostly I would find a way. Caitlin and [her sister] Jamie saw me go through some difficult times, but having my Mum there to support myself and the girls has helped."
Caitlin remembers being sent out to sell chocolates.
"I had to do that a fair bit to earn money…Mum spent money on the sport when she didn't have it. I can't thank her enough for what she did to get me where I am today."
Sam pictured following The Matildas' victory against Brazil in the World Cup qualifying round. (Image: Getty Images)
Sam Kerr was preordained to play football from birth.
Her father Roger was born in Calcutta to a metallurgist English father and an Indian mother.
The family moved to Perth when he was 10. Both Sam's father and brother were professional footballers. Roger played for East Freemantle in the WA Football League and for Port Adelaide in the SA National Football League. Her brother Daniel played for the West Coast Eagles in the AFL.
A clearly very tolerant Roxanne recalls Sam and Daniel kicking a football up and down the hallway of their house.
"The whole house was torn apart, it was just mayhem," says Sam. There must have been quite a bit of breakage.
"Don't worry," says Roxanne drily. "They still do it when they come home."
Roger would take the children out on runs around the streets.
"He is very focused on extra work to keep yourself fit and eating the right things," explains Roxanne. "That's just how we brought them up."
Sam grew up at the footy club.
"When my husband finished playing, he coached for about 15 years. He was coaching and I ran the canteen at the junior football club," explains Roxanne. With four children, "that was all we did – it was just football, netball, football, netball and then soccer came along. We were never home."
Sam was an indifferent student.
"I wouldn't say she was perfect at school. She liked school but not a lot. She did the usual muck up and got into trouble but nothing serious. She was pretty easy to bring up really."
After 13, girls couldn't play AFL anymore, so Sam started playing soccer.
"The first year, she got picked for the state girls' team, so it just came naturally to her," says Roxanne. "She is kind of unique in that she gets up really high – she's got a really vertical leap – and that's why she scores so many headers."
Sam says: "I just didn't think there was going to be any other path for me."
Matildas' star Caitlin Foord. (Image: Getty Images)
But there was no clear career path for either girl in Australia.
At 19, Sam went to play for Western New York Flash in the inaugural season of the United States National Women's Soccer League and Caitlin, at 18, went to New Jersey's Sky Blue FC.
"There was no money in it," says Roxanne. "It's so good now that they're finally being recognised because they trained every night and did the same things that the men did, travelled all over. That's why Sam had to go to America at such a young age."
For Caitlin, "being young, my first time overseas was very scary. It wasn't the easiest transition. It was the professional league but it was hard at the start, moving away from home."
The Matildas are currently ranked sixth in the world by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). The Socceroos are 41. Yet the girls are still paid a fraction of the men's income.
Says author and News Corp Sport columnist Jessica Halloran: "These footballers aren't photographed falling out of nightclubs drunk; they haven't been accused of behaving violently or inappropriately towards others. As a team and individually, they represent integrity, strength and humility. All of them have worked their hearts out to play for their country – at one point or another to their financial detriment. I read an article that revealed that Melbourne City reportedly paid Socceroos star Tim Cahill $3.5 million to play a couple of years ago. One professional male player was paid more than all 181 professional female players. It is a disgraceful pay gap."
Says Sam: "When I was a kid, I was just happy to get what I was given but times have changed. We are the best performing football team in Australia, and I have definitely seen a lot of change not only in pay but in resources, but I think there is still a fair way to go."
The entire Matildas' squad. (Image: Getty Images)
Both Jessica and Caitlin have been benched for long periods because of injury.
They have both ruptured ligaments in their feet, undergoing surgery to put a plate and four screws in each foot.
For Sam, it was in 2015, during a Perth Glory match in Brisbane. It was her third major injury after a knee reconstruction in 2011, and another knee injury in 2014.
"Injury is a pretty lonely place," says Sam. "People don't understand the psychological part of being injured. Sport is your life and you get taken away from the game."
In the darkest times, when they thought they might never be able to come back, both girls spent a lot of time talking to their mothers.
"It was my lowest point, being injured," says Sam. "As an athlete, you always want more – you want to be better – but the doctors were saying my career was over. I thought I was finished."
Sam has also credited her partner, Chicago Red Socks player Niki Stanton, with helping her through.
Last year, she and Niki laughingly told the Wide World of Sports about Sam's "breakdown" in the dips aisle of an American a shopping mall.
Niki told her: "You have got to get yourself together."
"She helped me a lot," Sam confessed.
"That is probably why I feel so deeply connected to her. That was the worst time in my career. That has been a really big part of the change in my career – her being here. She is just a really safe place for me."
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Both Sam and Caitlin came back from injury better and stronger, to take their careers to new heights.
"It was a blessing in disguise," says Caitlin. "It makes you appreciate the game a little bit more. Having it taken away from you makes you fall back in love with it again. You grow as a person and a player."
Sam agrees: "It is a really tough time but when you come back from injury and score that first goal, it makes everything that little bit sweeter."
Roxanne never thought Sam would be captain of the Matildas.
"She is not shy but she is kind of a stand-back girl, let everyone else do the talking. She was a pretty laid-back kid. She's not into the glory. But I think all the girls would be happy that she's the captain. Sam would never criticise them. It's always, 'Look, we'll just try to make this better.'"
Indeed Sam is a truly female leader.
"It's a big role for me," she admits. "I am still learning. I wouldn't say I am the complete leader yet, but I am someone who leads by my actions. I am in the captain's armband, I am a very emotional person but I am not one of those people who just stands there and yells. I am someone who gets out there and gets everyone motivated by what I am doing rather than what I am saying."
It goes without saying that, as the Matildas carry the hopes of their country into the World Cup, Sam and Caitlin's families will be there in the front row, more nervous than the players.
Sam bought her entire family plane tickets for Christmas.
"She said, 'You support me and I want you all to come,'" says Roxanne.
The players will barely notice the lights, the crowds, the global television audiences analysing their every move when they take to the field in France.
Says Sam: "When you first run out for the warm-up, and then you run back out after half-time, you realise that there is a crowd and perhaps you think of the importance of the game, but once you're playing, the stress and nerves go away and you definitely get in the zone."
But even when she's in the zone, Sam still thanks her lucky stars that she's had the skill and the tenacity to make it this far, and that she's been able to pull herself through some pretty steep physical and emotional challenges.
"Any time I get to represent my country," she says, "you don't take it for granted. I know now that it can be taken away so easily."

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