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Sam Kerr and Australia look to open World Cup with a win

June 9, 2019
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Chinese fans wait for the start of the Women's World Cup Group B soccer match between Germany and China, at the Roazhon Park stadium, in Rennes, France, Saturday, June 8, 2019. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

Sam Kerr hopes there will be plenty reasons to flip for this Women’s World Cup.

But even if Australia’s prolific scorer known for backflip celebrations doesn’t find the back of the net, she’d happily take a trophy instead.

“Every time I step on the field I want to score for my country, but to do it in a World Cup would be a dream come true,” Kerr said. “I haven’t done that. But I feel like I’m a different player this World Cup, I feel like I’m a different person. I feel like I’m better prepared, I know more about the game, I know more about my own game. And I feel like I’m just smarter.

“Look, if I don’t score and we win the World Cup I’m going to be happy. It’s not about me, this World Cup, it’s about the team.”

Australia opens the tournament on Sunday with a match against Italy in Valenciennes.

This will be Kerr’s third World Cup, after making her senior team debut in 2009 at age 15. She’s appeared in 77 games for Australia with 31 goals — but never one on the sport’s biggest stage.

In 2015, the Matildas advanced to the round of 16 and beat Brazil 1-0. It marked the first time that an Australian team, men or women, had won in the knockout stage. Japan, which went on to play in the final against the eventual champion U.S. team, beat the Matildas 1-0 in the quarterfinals to end the run.

Kerr plays professionally in both the United States, for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars, and in Australia, with the W-League’s Perth Glory. She is the all-time leading scorer in both leagues.

For the Red Stars this season Kerr already leads the league with six goals, bringing her career total to 65. She has won back-to-back Golden Boot awards.

She said Saturday that she’s confident Australia will score even in the face of Italy’s stout defense. The Italians allowed just four goals in qualifying.

“Every game we go into, we’re confident we can score. It’s not often that we get kept to zero goals, so hopefully tomorrow everyone’s on their game and can do their part and the goals are flowing. But by no means do we think it will be easy. We’re well up to the challenge,” she said.

The Australian team has gone through some turmoil in the lead-up to the World Cup. Coach Alen Stajcic was dismissed in January and replaced with Ante Milicic.

The Australian federation said it fired Stajcic following an internal review which they claimed revealed a “toxic” team culture. He has denied the allegations.

Kerr said the upheaval brought the team closer together.

“I think it’s all outside noise for us to be honest,” she said. “We’re focused on our team, we’re focused on our game tomorrow. We know what we have to do to win the World Cup, and win this group, and win our game tomorrow.”

Australia and Italy are in Group C along with Brazil and Jamaica, who play Sunday in Grenoble. Brazil will be without six-time world player of the year Marta because of a thigh injury.

Following Sunday’s match, the Matildas will head to Montpellier to face Brazil. Twenty-four teams are traversing France for the monthlong tournament, which wraps up on July 7 with the final in Lyon.

Also Sunday, England plays Scotland in Nice.

ALL EYES ON US: After inheriting a team that made the semifinals at the 2015 World Cup and Euro 2017, Phil Neville knows the minimum expected of his England side.

Growing interest back home brings greater scrutiny, so specialists have been brought in by Neville to help England cope with any negativity.

“These players have never experienced what they’ve experienced over the last three weeks in terms of the media attention,” Neville said ahead of Sunday’s opening game against Scotland in Nice. “We’re not going to back off or shy away from any kind of challenge now and the challenge now for the team is to go out and perform.”

When Neville was growing up, FIFA only organized men’s global tournaments until the Women’s World Cup debuted in 1991.

“World Cups are what made me fall in love with football, now you have to remove yourself from that,” said the former Manchester United defender, who missed out on three England World Cup squads.

“Tomorrow night is about calmness,” he added Saturday. “The two biggest things that I’ve learned in the last 16 months about my players is they have to play with a smile on the face and they have to be fresh.”

RECAPPING SATURDAY: In Group B, Germany topped China 1-0 in Rennes, while Spain defeated South Africa 3-1 in Le Havre. Norway defeated Nigeria 3-0 in Reims for the second match in Group A: Hosts France beat South Korea 4-0 in the tournament opener on Friday night in Paris.

THE RESULTS ARE IN: The Women’s World Cup — at least the home team — is a hit in France. National broadcaster TF1 said at its peak, nearly 11 million people tuned in for France’s opening match against South Korea, setting a record in the country for a women’s World Cup match. France next plays Norway on Wednesday in Nice.

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AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris in Nice contributed to this report.

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