It was the moment all of Australia had been waiting for. Their captain, Sam Kerr, was stepping onto the World Cup stage — and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Kerr was primed to be the face of co-hosts Australia’s 2023 World Cup. Instead, the forward has been sidelined for three weeks, missing almost the entirety of their first four games, by a calf injury. Her absence clouded Australia’s run to the quarter-finals, forcing them to learn to play without their skipper.

Australia were already leading Denmark by the final score of 2-0 in Monday’s round-of-16 tie when head coach Tony Gustavsson brought on Kerr for Hayley Raso in the 80th minute.

The sea of gold and green inside Sydney’s Stadium Australia cheered at the sight of their star player warming up on the sideline and, when Kerr eventually stepped on the pitch, almost all of the 75,784 fans in attendance greeted her with resounding joy. They were right behind her for the 10 minutes she played.

“Oh, I absolutely loved it,” defender Alanna Kennedy said. “I think the crowd loved it, as well. The whole of Australia loved it. She’s the heart and soul of his team.”

Kerr is the side’s talisman, but for Gustavsson, her return at this stage of the tournament could relieve some of the pressure on her.

🫶 20 🫶@SamKerr1 #FIFAWWC

— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) August 7, 2023

“I think Sam coming back now could be a good thing, in the sense that we don’t need to look at her taking over and having everything on her shoulder,” Gustavsson said. “It’s a team effort and a team tournament.” He called her return “the icing on the cake.”

Defender Steph Catley added: “How many times can you get to a quarter-final and then add your best player, one of the best players in the world, back into the team? Your captain? That’s something we’ve definitely never had before. I think at major tournaments like this, if anything, we’ve got injuries, we’ve lost players. (Then) It’s a bit of a struggle. Everyone’s tired.

“But I think it’s the opposite at this point. I think people are feeling great. Everyone’s healthy. We’re adding players; Tameka Yallop came back into the fold as well. So, we’ve got fresh legs and a fresh Sam Kerr. God knows what that means.”

While Denmark showed glimpses of strength, Australia used the energy exuded from the crowd to gain the upper hand. Ruso and Mary Fowler used their power and speed to penetrate Denmark’s defensive end and show the world the Matildas are a squad filled with talent.

“I knew they could do it without me,” Kerr said, “but it’s been amazing to kind of sit back and watch just how much all of these players that I grew up with have grown into their own – and they’re all superstars in their own making.”

Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord, earning the player of the match nod, had a dynamic performance at both ends, with her 29th-minute goal providing the initial spark for victory.

“She’s an incredible player, and she’s been building for a while now,” said Catley, who is also her club team-mate. “It’s nice to see her sort of let loose and do her thing and she had so many chances to run a play tonight and do what she does best. … I think my favourite part about what she does is she works just as hard on the other side of the ball defensively and making tackles (and) tracking back.”

Australia will face either France or Morocco, who meet tomorrow (Tuesday), in the last eight in Brisbane on Saturday. Their path to reach this stage has been unconventional, some may call it frustrating, with very little light shed on the mystery over Kerr’s fitness.

There was a viral moment ahead of last Monday’s final Group B match against Canada. Australia were on the brink of elimination, after losing to Nigeria in game two, and needed to top the reigning Olympic champions to secure their passage to the last 16 — and Gustavsson, in an interview with Mark Schwarzer, one of Australia’s most decorated footballers, dodged questions about Kerr.

Schwarzer asks what every Australian wanted to know: “Did she (Kerr) train today? Did she take part in the session, and will she play tomorrow?”

Gustavsson smiles before saying: “Fair question.” He then trails off, repeating a now familiar script: “We’re not going to say anything until gameday. Whether we use her as a starter or a game-changer off the bench is all about a plan for 90 minutes and how we think she might have the most effect in the game and also the risks.”

Schwarzer repeats the question: “So, did she join today with the team?”

Mark Schwarzer asked Tony Gustavsson five times if Sam Kerr trained with the Matildas today 🎤

This was his response.

The full interview #FIFAWWC #OptusSport

— Optus Sport (@OptusSport) July 30, 2023

Again, Gustavsson laughs. Again, he dodges the question.

This went on for 40 seconds.

Though Kerr was back on the pitch in Sydney, questions about her fitness remain.

Gustavsson admitted to reporters that a slip on the pitch after she went on had scared him, but the Chelsea forward chalked it up to “terrible groins.” She said she “just fell over, like a normal thing.”

Kerr slips on the pitch (Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images )

After the game, a reporter asked Kerr if she’d be starting in Australia’s next match.

“Me? I don’t know,” she said, with a quick laugh. She added, “I mean, I have a plan. The physios have a plan. I asked them if I could run (in the warm-down) after the game, and they said no. So I’m sure I’ll just be following their plan, like I have the last few weeks.”

(Top photo: Andy Cheung/Getty Images)