Sam Kerr didn’t know what she was going to do when she turned her body towards the empty grass and started to run. 

The moment had come from nothing, really: Clare Hunt poking the ball away from Alessia Russo, Katrina Gorry taking a touch in-field and looking up.

So low had the Matildas’ players been sitting, pressed back into themselves by a thundering England side, that Kerr had to venture deep into her own half to even get close to the game that had largely been happening without her.

Sure, the striker had started her first match of this home Women’s World Cup. And sure, she had scythed through England’s centre-backs in the sixth minute to clang a Gorry pass into Mary Earps’s legs.

But for most of the preceding hour, when she wasn’t tumbling into the grass, crashed into by Lionesses players who knew from experience that this was the only way to stop her, she was doing a lot of watching other people play football.

Sam Kerr looks to her left as she watches the Matildas warm up for their World Cup match against Nigeria.

Sam Kerr’s absence from most of the World Cup made the anticipation of her start against England even greater.(Getty Images: Bradley Kanaris)

She has done a lot of that lately. The calf injury sustained on the eve of the opening game had forced her to experience this team and this tournament from elsewhere — the bench, mostly, but increasingly in snatches on the field as the fibres of her muscle began to repair.

The tragedy was almost Shakespearean in its timing, almost too scripted, too unreal, something designed by a room of writers for the galaxies of cameras that had been following the Matildas’ every step leading into and during this tournament.

A national newspaper had printed free cardboard cut-outs of Kerr’s face to every buyer, her name had been splashed across banners and bulletins, her backflip turned into T-shirts and tattoos. This was meant to be Sam Kerr’s World Cup, but she had spent most of the past two weeks watching it pass her by.

What her absence did allow for, though, was the perfect denouement: a remarkable comeback of the defeated hero at exactly the moment she was needed. And on Wednesday night, as the Matildas tried to wrench and wrestle themselves back into a game that England was tearing away from them, she was.

The reigning European Champions had been playing with the cold precision of an assassin’s knife, their steely blue shirts slicing through Australia’s rolling yellow mass, moving the ball with a neat and practised ruthlessness.

They had no care for the blood that could be spilled here, the life leaking out of this gasping body the longer they worked. They had a job to do, even if it meant killing the tournament’s beloved protagonist in the process.

Lauren Hemp runs past Ellie Carpenter

The Lionesses were clinical and ruthless against the Matildas on Wednesday night.(Getty Images: FIFA/Mark Metcalfe)

The Matildas were suffering. They moved with a kind of weariness, their bodies and minds likely still recovering from the war zone of Saturday’s quarter-final against France.

They were near-total strangers to the grass within Earps’s penalty area in the opening half-hour, and had just barely started to string some passes together by the time Ella Toone put England ahead, lasering the ball into the top pocket after some slow-motion defending.

75,000 boos barrelled around Stadium Australia as the young midfielder’s photo appeared on the big screen, the feverish home fans trying to recreate the wall of noise that had helped the Matildas outlast France in the penalty shootout.

The last act of the half saw Ellie Carpenter bested by the stand-out Lauren Hemp, desperately trying to tug the winger back into their individual contest, then tripping and sliding into the grass near the sideline: a moment that befitted a half in which Australia were almost always second-best.

It felt, when the half-time whistle blew, that the Matildas had already run their race. The players looked drained, physically and emotionally: a half-second slower to press, to tackle, to intercept, to transition. They’d given everything of themselves across 120 agonising minutes less than a week ago, and it seemed as if they simply had nothing left to give.

All except Kerr. She wasn’t carrying the battle scars of the past five games on her body; her legs weren’t blunted or bruised to the bone, her mind wasn’t foggy with fatigue. What she did have, instead, was less than a minute, and a stretch of empty space beyond.

So she started to run.

A soccer player wearing yellow and green and pink shoes runs during a game

The Matildas had given everything, and now Sam Kerr was ready to give them something back.(Getty Images: Andy Cheung)

As soon as the ball touched her bright pink boots, the tide of sound around the stadium began to rise.

Kerr wheeled across the halfway line, her stride extending, her arms flapping, her heels slapping the backs of her thighs. Flashes of Cathy Freeman came to mind then — the woman who inspired so many, including this team, in this exact place 23 years ago — as her brown legs propelled her forward, lifting her face from her feet and staring down the final straight, the distant white lines easing into view.

England’s two flustered defenders could only backtrack, bracing themselves for the stampede not just of Kerr but of the whole nation that roared behind her, as though the captain had no choice but to pull them all onto her back and continue running.

She covered metre after glorious metre with a kind of defiant fury, fuelled by the rage of time lost, each step a refusal to let this cruel trickery of the gods define a tournament that could have — should have — been hers.

We all felt it. This generational talent, this heart-and-soul captain, this role model to millions, this wise-cracking kid from Perth, finally being given the moment she had been waiting for.

Even if Bright had wanted to take a daring step towards her, the shock wave of noise would not allow it. The England captain tried to throw a desperate leg, but before her synapses could snap and signal her left foot to swing, Kerr’s right one had already sent lightning through the ball and a hot flash of hope through everyone watching.

There was only one place it was ever going to go. 

A goalkeeper wearing all pink looks over her shoulder at a ball that flies past her during a game

Sam Kerr’s equaliser gave Matildas fans hope, as she has done so many times before.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

The entire world seemed to erupt then, lost in an intoxicating mix of joy and release, the sound of destiny lurching back on course. Kerr peeled off towards the sideline, a single defiant fist punching the air, ripping apart her chest like Superman revealing a Matildas jersey underneath. The hero we all needed.

The seven minutes that followed were laced with heady bliss: the hope and dreaming this team had inspired over the past two weeks, the belief that they have created not just in them but in us, the feeling of knowing the line was within reach so long as we turned and ran at it.

And so Kerr did, barely a minute later, picking up the ball and driving past the bodies that had transformed from steel to fog, coiling her left leg back to unleash another shot but winning a corner that came to nothing instead.

She radiated energy like a supernova, warping space and time around her, swimming and sliding through whirlpools of sound. In the 66th minute the ball is magnetised to her again, sent deep and direct from Kyra Cooney-Cross only for the rubber to skim her scalp and fall into Earps’s chest.

But seven minutes were all we had to live in this unstoppable feeling before England came crashing back in, Hemp piercing a missed clearance from Carpenter into the net in the 71st minute before Russo twisted the knife in the 86th: two goals that, from the muted celebrations around the stadium, felt like some kind of cosmic betrayal.

The Matildas pushed all the way to the final desperate minute, with Kerr missing two glorious chances to claw her side back, but perhaps, like them, her race had already been run.

England celebrates as Sam Kerr looks on

Sam Kerr’s glaring miss led to England scoring a third goal 69 seconds later. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

When the final whistle blew, Kerr put her hands on her knees and stared down into the grass. She had done all she could to turn into the final stretch and accelerate, just like Freeman had, but now was on her haunches, her face buried in her shirt, watching others tear off into the distance without her.

That has been the story of the Matildas in this miraculous World Cup: a group of sufferers and sacrificers, a group that has lost crucial players and even more crucial games, and that has had to do it all with a gasping domestic sport laying heavy and limp in their arms.

To not just have gotten further than any Australian team has at a World Cup before, but to have done it in the way that they have — giving everything of themselves, scrapping and soaring as each game came and went, letting their hopes and heartbreaks spill out onto the grass for all of us to see — they have changed Australian sport forever, unifying a nation and opening the door to what once felt impossible.

And even though we have made this tournament all about them, they have continually made this tournament about us, throwing forward to the Matildas yet to come, talking about inspiring the next generation and the generation after that, handing them this gift that they can point to one day and say, “that’s where it all started for me”.

Because, ultimately, what made Cathy Freeman’s race memorable was not so much crossing the line, but her whole glorious run to it, from the crack of the starting gun to those two curving corners to the tantalising home stretch.

Cathy Freeman in the 2000 Sydney Olympics 400m final.

The Matildas created their own Cathy Freeman moment, even if it didn’t end the way they wanted it to.(AAP: Dean Lewis)

We were all there with her then, growing in belief with every passing step, and we have been with this team now, through every step of theirs: every pull and thrust of their arms, every hot ache of muscle and sharp intake of breath.

We have been there, running alongside them, all of us gathering around the final turn, the white lines on the horizon coming slowly into view.

The Matildas may not cross it this time; they might not take their slow victory lap, flags draped over their shoulders, heavy metal in their hands. 

But this World Cup was never really about the line. It was about the run towards it.

And now a whole nation is running with them, carried by this wave of hope and dreaming, ignited by the belief that the line is there and that it can be within our reach at all.