It isn’t supposed to be ending like this.

Emily van Egmond’s goal in first-half stoppage time felt cathartic. A roar, a sprint into the arms of the injured icon Sam Kerr. Opponents Nigeria had not won a match after falling behind for over a decade.

Despite Kerr’s absence through injury so far from this Women’s World Cup they are co-hosting, the equation seemed clear — Australia would do enough, with two narrow wins in their first two group matches, to guarantee themselves a knockout phase fixture. Advance Australia Fair.

But in the antipodean winter, away from the glare of the city and the lights of the coast, dusk sets quickly and falls deeply. The glinting optimism of the Southern Cross shimmers with little more than remoteness and by the end of Nigeria’s startling 3-2 comeback victory in Brisbane on Thursday, it felt as if the stars on the country’s flag were being hauled down from the 2023 World Cup’s flagpole.

Kerr celebrates but by the end, her country were on their knees (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Monday’s finale against Canada, the other pre-tournament favourites to progress from Group B, feels like a must-win if the Matildas are to avoid being dumped out of their home World Cup in the group stage. With only the top two advancing to the round of 16, Australia are third, a point behind Nigeria, who play twice-beaten Ireland in their third match, and Canada. All signs point to them being without Kerr once more on Monday.

It all unravelled so quickly.

Three goals from Nigeria in under half an hour, underscored by a brave header from Osinachi Ohale to put them 2-1 up.

Then again, abruptness has been a theme of Australia’s tournament.

Scarcely an hour before kick-off in their opening game a week ago, Sydney’s Stadium Australia swelling with the optimism of a record 80,000 crowd, the mood was punctured by news of Kerr’s calf injury.

The Chelsea striker had even taken part in the pre-match press conference the previous day, when her condition was known by the team, to keep the Irish guessing. Vera Pauw’s team were shocked — and so was the watching host nation.

On that occasion, a collective exhalation blew Steph Catley’s winning penalty into the net. But shorn of the emotion of Kerr’s injury — as well as replacement striker Mary Fowler, out against Nigeria with a concussion — Australia revealed their vulnerabilities.

Their stay in this home World Cup may be equally swift.

Since the tournament’s genesis in 1991, no Women’s World Cup hosts have gone out in the group stage. Some considered the possibility of this happening to 2023 co-hosts New Zealand — who had never won a World Cup game before their opening-day victory over Norway. But not Australia.

With New Zealand’s loss to the Philippines in their second game, both host nations possibly failing to advance from their group could have serious repercussions for football in the region. The knockout stages are in danger of becoming a wake rather than a party.

Has the tournament ignited domestically to date? Ticket sales in Australia have been high, but there has also been criticism from locals due to the difficulty of following matches not involving the Matildas. Other games, until the knockout stage, are only on the subscription service Optus. FIFA argues this move is important to avoid undercutting broadcasting deals made with other nations, saying this would jeopardise future earnings from the women’s game.

Others say there has been a lack of visible branding around the tournament, remembering the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the extent of the marketing carried out on the city’s iconic ferries.

An early Australian exit threatens the competition as a whole.

That said, it is difficult to look at Nigeria’s win — surely the most significant ever by an African nation at the Women’s World Cup — and feel that, in the long term, this is a terrible day for the progress of the women’s game.

Nigeria earned their celebrations and now looked destined for the knockouts (Photo: Getty Images)

An argument was also made in local paper The Sydney Morning Herald that the reaction to Kerr’s injury marked a signal change in a country whose sporting culture is known for being single-minded, macho, and overwhelmingly male. Here was a country riding on the fitness of a female sports star, Kerr’s calf rivalling the Australia men’s cricket team retaining the Ashes over in England on the back pages.

In Sydney, 900km (550 miles) south of Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, that optimism was difficult to find at full-time.

Bars emptied as quickly as Australia’s hopes of reaching the last 16 shrank — a few still lingering in hope, though their attention may have been caught instead by the night’s NRL action or the fifth Ashes Test getting underway on Thursday morning London time. In such a crowded sporting marketplace, this was the Matildas’ chance to compete for the public’s collective consciousness.

Australia had entered the tournament on a high. In 2023, they had beaten European champions England; Spain, arguably the most stylish team on that continent; and France, a team with more potential than any in Europe; and in Kerr they boasted one of the best players on the planet.

A 1-0 loss to Scotland in London in April appeared an aberration. After all, they were without Kerr that night. So what did that game matter?

This is the innate fragility of sport. Amid one of the most meticulously-planned World Cups in recent memory, which Australia entered as favourites, one moment in a training session tweaked not just a muscle fibre but an entire tournament. Without Kerr, Australia were without options.

In fairness, Fowler’s absence against Nigeria further upset the tactics of coach Tony Gustavsson. When injuries mount and goals seem to fall in around you, a certain fatalism sets in. Here was the sense that Australia were no longer protagonists in their own World Cup. Look at the faces in the full-time huddle. There were ghosts in those expressions.

After going behind to Ohale’s 65th-minute goal, Australia began to play with panic. Rather than continuing with their normal build-up play, they threw bodies forward, the plan’s pages muddled without the team’s spine.

(Photo: Matt Roberts – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Centre-back Clare Polkinghorne replaced winger Cortnee Vine, allowing defender Alanna Kennedy to move up front. The plan worked, kind of, with Kennedy scoring in stoppage time to reduce a 3-1 deficit — but with her goal coming from a corner, it is arguable she would have been up there anyway.

“We forced the ball going forwards, we weren’t clinical enough,” rued Catley at full-time.

Kerr has scored 53 goals from 64 appearances in the last three Women’s Super League seasons. When her calf went, so did 63 international goals.

Asked if she would make the Canada game, having initially been ruled out for their first two matches of the tournament, Gustavsson provided a small update on the forward’s fitness.

“All I can say is: I hope so. It’s going to be tight,” he replied. He says a decision will be taken on the morning of the game, with Kerr likely to have a fitness test.

The credibility of that statement is undermined by the subterfuge which surrounded the striker’s absence from the Ireland match. In that context, this sounds like a coach desperately trying to convince the Canadians of some miraculous recovery, hoping to glean some tactical advantage from the uncertainty of Kerr’s availability.

It sounds like what it is — desperation.

The lasting image of this tournament was meant to be the World Cup suspended over the Sydney Opera House.

Australia have four days to ensure it is not instead one of Kerr, sitting tracksuited on a touchline bench, face scrunched into the fists which hold the last of the Matildas’ World Cup dreams.

(Top photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)