Of all the injuries star players sustained before the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup began, this might be the most painful.

Sam Kerr hasn’t been ruled out of the tournament, of course, as have been English Beth Mead, French Delphine Cascarino, Dutch Vivianne Miedema or the USWNT trio of Catarina Macario, Mallory Swanson and captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

However, on Thursday, as a practical matter, the impact was largely the same. Australia’s undisputed headliner and perhaps the best pure forward in women’s football, Kerr was unable to suit up for the Matildas’ 1-0 opening day win over the Republic of Ireland, which proved uncomfortably close due to a calf injury suffered during training the day before.

It’s bad enough that Kerr has already been ruled out of the Australians’ second group game, against Nigeria. Calf strains can be notoriously slow to heal. The usual recovery time is one to three weeks. Even if he can play in the first round final against Canada, it remains to be seen how well and for how long.

Either way, this is a crushing blow to Kerr, his country and the competition in general.

Both the Aussies and the neutrals obviously expect Kerr to bounce back sooner rather than later; that he only misses the first match and the second game of the Matildas, then returns to claim his role as the face of Australia/New Zealand 2023 and, if all goes to plan, the trophy when all is said and done.

But this is bad news made worse by the fact that it came seemingly out of nowhere, less than an hour before the match against the Irish was due to kick off and while fellow Kiwi co-hosts were close to that country’s first World Cup victory. The moment makes everything more shocking and crueler.

This event is supposed to be the shining moment for the 29-year-old Kerr. It is supposed to represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australia’s most popular athlete, at the height of her powers and right in her athletic prime, to show what she can do on the biggest stage her sport has to offer and in front of her own adoring audience.

‘World Cup Tonight’ crew reacts to Sam Kerr’s injury and discusses which Aussie player will step up

'World Cup Tonight' crew reacts to Sam Kerr's injury and discusses which Aussie player will step up

Nearly 76,000 fans clad in Matilda’s amber jerseys, a significant percentage of them emblazoned with Kerr’s name and the famous number 20 on the back, packed Stadium Australia on Thursday to cheer on their hero, to watch Kerr lead their nation to what they hope will be its first title when the World Cup final takes place at the same stadium on August 20.

It’s hard to overstate how beloved Kerr is in a country that prefers its own brand of football, Australian rules, plus cricket, rugby and even basketball to women’s soccer. Her face was everywhere long before the Australians began promoting the country’s first World Cup; he has been more ubiquitous in recent months as the tournament has drawn closer.

Last summer, Kerr became the first female soccer player to grace the global cover of EA Sports’ FIFA video game franchise, alongside Frenchman Kylian Mbappe. In May, Australia’s prime minister selected Kerr, who plays for London’s Chelsea, to carry her country’s flag at the coronation of King Charles III. Kerr is a world player, but she is so much more than that. It is no exaggeration to say that she, at this time, is perhaps Australia’s most revered ambassador to the rest of the world.

Summary of Australia vs. Ireland

Summary of Australia vs.  Ireland

That we now know that he won’t be able to play until at least the end of the group stage is a gut punch for the nation from coast to coast, not to mention soccer fans in every corner of the world.

The Matildas must now dig deep and find a way to win without their main scoring threat. The unconvincing win over World Cup debutants Ireland proved that. Despite their massive home field advantage, Australia managed just two shots on goal all night. Twice the Irish came close to a draw in the dying moments. Still, beating Nigeria would secure the Australians a spot in the second round and take some of the pressure off Kerr to return in time to face the dangerous Canadians, the reigning Olympic champions.

It won’t be easy though. Kerr can win a game alone. She is the last straw for Australia, and Tony Gustavsson’s side, who are not among the favorites to win the title even with Kerr on the field, are different, far less dangerous without her.

There’s still time for a storybook ending, of course. This World Cup has only just begun. The final is still a full month away. Kerr should be fully healthy by then, but the clock is ticking, and it’s fair to wonder if Australia can survive long enough without her to get there.

For his team, his country and his sport, Sam Kerr can’t get back on the field soon enough.

Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at various FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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