Perth, brace for impact.
The Matildas are coming to town – and that means the long-awaited return of captain and homegrown hero Sam Kerr to the local spotlight after nearly four years abroad.
Kerr hasn’t played in Western Australia since her departure from Perth Glory to English Women’s Super League giants Chelsea in 2019; she comes home with the Matildas for three Olympic qualifiers between October 26 and November 1 – including a clash with the Philippines at Optus Stadium on October 29 set to play out in front of a bumper crowd.
Australia face Iran (October 26), the Philippines (October 29) and Chinese Taipei (November 1) – if Tony Gustavsson’s side top their qualifying group, they will progress to a two-leg play-off with one of the other group winners or the best-placed runners-up from across three AFC groups. The winner of that play-off will qualify for the Olympics.
Kerr is a Matildas veteran of 125 caps. Matching her every step of the way along the journey has been Emily van Egmond, whose career has been intertwined with Kerr’s across 135 national team appearances of her own.
Van Egmond says it’s special to be returning to Perth alongside Kerr – but admits she won’t be too keen to join the Matildas captain for many public outings as the city swarms to get a glimpse of their hero.
“I’m happy for Sam to be able to come home for once,” Van Egmond said. “Every time we come to Australia it’s usually in Sydney or Melbourne on the East coast.
“So to be able to have games here, and for Perth to be able to come and support us, and support our captain Sam who is a homegrown talent here, I think is great.
It’s a big testament to her and what she’s achieved. Being her teammate and being able to play beside her is amazing every single time I get the opportunity,” she said.
“I dare say, when Sam Kerr lands it’s going to be a frenzy,” she added. “I won’t be walking with her to any coffee shops!”
The last time Kerr and the Matildas were in Perth for an international was in 2018; inclement weather was a factor on that night in the West – but the friendly drew a crowd of just 7,549 at HBF Park.
Five-and-a-half years later, the Matildas are back in Perth for two sell-out games at HBF Park – and an Optus Stadium showcase against the Philippines with an expected crowd of more than 55,000.
Van Egmond played from the start on that night in March, 2018, alongside Kerr in a 5-0 win over Thailand in Perth. She looks at the groundswell of support the current Matildas have received ahead of the three Olympic qualifiers and can hardly believe the progress and change made in the half-decade between Perth visits.
“If it is a sellout – that (will be) huge for us,” van Egmond said of the Optus Stadium clash against the Philippines.
“(The crowd) was a massive boost throughout the World Cup, we were so humbled that everyone got around us and we’re looking forward to that again.
“If you (had) asked us five years ago if we thought that was going to be possible, I don’t think anyone would have said yes,” she said. “The fact we’re sitting here now five years on, it’s amazing. The fact young girls and boys get to come out and see their women’s national team on home soil is great.
“Obviously, Sam Kerr is a global superstar now, so that helped, but off the back of the World Cup success I think has been pivotal in the change for the better… the World Cup was amazing for the Australian public to witness, and hopefully it just keeps going that way – not just for women but for the men’s game.”
“The public have been amazing,” van Egmond added. “If we can give back to them in any way, to the younger generation, this group of girls there’s no better group. We’re all as excited as everyone else to be here, at home and in front of the most amazing fans.”
The midfielder was one of the early arrivals in the Matildas camp, with players touching down in Perth on staggered schedules depending on when they last played for their club sides. Kerr is expected to join the group on Tuesday, having played in the WSL with Chelsea on Sunday night (AEDT).
Van Egmond was one of a handful of players at WA’s new State Football Centre on Monday morning, joined by A-Leagues stars Cortnee Vine and Tameka Yallop, along with last season’s Julie Dolan Medallist Alex Chidiac, with Ellie Carpenter also among the early arrivals in the squad.
As one of the earliest arrivals in camp she was afforded the time to visit the Liberty A-League scene on Sunday, attending HBF Park to watch Perth Glory defeat her former side Newcastle Jets – a team currently coached by her dad, Gary van Egmond.
The Matildas squad is made up entirely of players like van Egmond, who debuted in senior football in Australia and New Zealand’s top domestic competition before going on to achieve international stardom. She recognises the success of the national team at the World Cup has made its impact not only on the level of interest in the Perth Olympic qualifiers, but also for the Liberty A-League which in Round 1 welcomed more than 25,000 fans through the gates in an all-time weekend for the competition.
While she was at HBF Park to watch the Jets take on Perth, on the other side of the country 14-year-old Western Sydney Wanderer Talia Younis was making history as the competition’s youngest-ever debutant. Younis bumped van Egmond to sixth on the all-time list as she came on for the Wanderers in defeat to Wellington.
Van Egmond debuted in the league with the Jets at 15 years of age. Her advice to Younis – a Junior Matildas regular – is to never lose sight of the joy football brings to her life as she experiences her own journey in the sport.
“It’s all about the love of the game,” she said. “Just enjoy it. When you’re enjoying it, you’re playing your best footy and you’re doing something you love, which at the end of the day is the most important thing.
“If you aspire to be a future Matilda, or whatever it is in your profession, do it with a smile on your face, because you’ve got to love what you do.”