CNN
Now playing
08:00
In Her Shoes: A footballer's life
LYON, FRANCE - JULY 07:  Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 07, 2019 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
LYON, FRANCE - JULY 07: Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 07, 2019 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:09
World Cup fans chant in support of equal pay
CNN
Now playing
01:59
Trump weighs in on equal pay for female athletes
CNN
Now playing
00:54
Rapinoe: We are a proud, strong and defiant group of women
fifa womens world cup roundtable on the field moments football spt intl_00000008.jpg
fifa womens world cup roundtable on the field moments football spt intl_00000008.jpg
Now playing
04:46
WWC 2019 Roundtable: On the field moments
United States' forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring a goal during the France 2019 Women's World Cup quarter-final football match between France and USA, on June 28, 2019, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
United States' forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring a goal during the France 2019 Women's World Cup quarter-final football match between France and USA, on June 28, 2019, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP) (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:29
Stars: What would a WWC win mean for USWNT?
CNN
Now playing
02:01
Women's World Cup: Megan Rapinoe 1-on-1
ROTHERHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 08:  Eniola Aluko in action during the UEFA Women's European Qualifer between England and Belgium at The New York Stadium on April 8, 2016 in Rotherham, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
ROTHERHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: Eniola Aluko in action during the UEFA Women's European Qualifer between England and Belgium at The New York Stadium on April 8, 2016 in Rotherham, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:15
Aluko: 'Bullish' Neville can inspire World Cup glory
EMPOLI, ITALY - JANUARY 18: Christiane Endler of Chile Women throws the ball during the International Friendly match between Italy Women and Chile Women on January 18, 2019 in Empoli, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
EMPOLI, ITALY - JANUARY 18: Christiane Endler of Chile Women throws the ball during the International Friendly match between Italy Women and Chile Women on January 18, 2019 in Empoli, Italy. (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:37
Christiane Endler's path to France 2019
CNN
Now playing
02:36
Women's World Cup: Alex Morgan 1-On-1
CNN
Now playing
02:14
Women's World Cup: Lucy Bronze 1-on-1
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 07: General view inside the stadium during the opening ceremony prior to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group A match between France and Korea Republic at Parc des Princes on June 07, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 07: General view inside the stadium during the opening ceremony prior to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group A match between France and Korea Republic at Parc des Princes on June 07, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:40
Women's World Cup excitement: Fact or fiction?
CNN
Now playing
01:36
Women's World Cup: Janine Van Wyk 1-On-1
CNN
Now playing
02:01
Women's World Cup: Maria Jose Rojas 1-On-1
CNN
Now playing
01:46
Women's World Cup: Amandine Henry 1-On-1
CNN
Now playing
01:59
Women's World Cup: Ellen White 1-on-1
CNN
Now playing
01:36
Women's World Cup: Rita Chikwelu 1-On-1
PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 08:  The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display during the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019 Draw at La Seine Musicale on December 8, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 08: The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display during the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019 Draw at La Seine Musicale on December 8, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:01
FIFA Women's World Cup: Bigger, better, bolder
(CNN) —  

Twelve years ago, Bobby Despotovski was coming to the end of his football career. With one eye on a future in coaching, the-then Perth Glory striker went to his club’s training ground to watch the youth teams play.

On one pitch the women’s team was being put through its paces. His initial intent had not been to watch the girls play, but he was drawn in by a 13-year-old who could glide away in the smallest of spaces. She was quick, athletic and blessed with “raw talent.” She was, he says, exceptional.

“I saw her running and playing, and I thought to myself that this girl has attributes to become one of the best footballers in the world,” Despotovski, now head coach of Perth Glory Women, tells CNN Sport.

Some players are so brilliantly irresistible in their youth that it is obvious a golden future awaits and so it was with Sam Kerr, the football prodigy who became a Ballon d’Or nominee, a global brand ambassador and Australia’s captain in a Women’s World Cup where the country is regarded as one of the strongest teams in the tournament despite a shock opening defeat to Italy.

Though her rise to the higher echelons of women’s football has come as no surprise to her coach Despotovski, Kerr once described herself as being “total crap” in her first season of playing the game.

READ: Australia’s thrilling comeback seals victory over Brazil

READ: From nude calendars to title contenders – The Matildas’ long road to success

Kerr scored the opening goal in Australia's 2-1 defeat by Italy.
Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Kerr scored the opening goal in Australia's 2-1 defeat by Italy.

To understand Kerr’s description of her younger self it is to delve a little deeper into how the finest player Australia has produced came to play the beautiful game.

Born in Western Australia, the 25-year-old grew up in a family where Australian Football League (AFL), more commonly known as Aussie Rules, was ingrained. Her Indian-born father was a late convert to the game but excelled in the WAFL premiership, the top division, while her brother, Daniel, played for West Coast Eagles in the AFL.

Kerr too was also a talented AFL player. At home she would pluck imaginary balls out of the air and practice with her three brothers. She was the lone girl who would star in boys’ teams until, aged 12, she reached the end of the road.

The differences between the sexes had become too pronounced and so Kerr switched to football, a sport which was alien to the AFL community she had been brought up in.

Had there been a pathway for girls in AFL, Kerr admitted her life would have taken a different turn. “I would have missed out on all of this,” she told reporters on the eve of the Women’s World Cup. “The rug was ripped out underneath me,” is how she described being forced to stop playing the childhood sport in which she shone.

READ: US defends itself after 13-0 rout of Thailand

READ: Women’s World Cup – The crucial stats

Kerr's now familiar backflip celebration has endeared her to Austalia's football fans.
Graham Denholm/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Kerr's now familiar backflip celebration has endeared her to Austalia's football fans.

For a sport she did not immediately fall in love with, Kerr’s progress was startling. Aged 15 and 150 days, she made her international debut, having already become the youngest scorer in the W-League – Australia’s top division – and voted players’ player of the year.

Though she has previously said her intention was to retire aged 21, Kerr is still playing and for that Australia is grateful.

She splits her time between Australia and the US playing for the Chicago Red Stars in the American National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and Perth Glory in the W-League and is the all-time leading scorer in both leagues. Feats achieved despite suffering three major injuries.

In 2018, she was named Young Australian of the Year and came fifth in the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or award. Earlier this year it was announced the striker would be the face of Nike in Australia, fronting the company’s billboard and TV campaigns in the country in a deal which reportedly makes Kerr – who has signed a AUS $400,000 [$278,000] contract with Federation Football Australia (FFA) – the first female Australian soccer player to earn more than AUS $1million a year [$690,000].

READ: The footballers changing perceptions around the world

Kerr is the all-time leading scorer in both the W-League and the NWSL.
Matt King/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Kerr is the all-time leading scorer in both the W-League and the NWSL.

How did Kerr become so good so quickly after an inauspicious first season? Work ethic, says Despotovski, who described the 25-year-old as an easy player to coach because of the Australian’s desire to “improve all the time.”

But with national hero status comes responsibility, not that the easy-going Kerr, whom Despotovski confirms is a joker, is the sort to let the hopes of a nation weigh heavy on her shoulders.

“She’s a very bubbly person, nothing bothers her,” he said. “She comes to a training session and takes the young girls that we have in the squad under her wing and tries to introduce the work ethic she has.

“Even at 25, she’s very mature and trying to pass all of that to the younger generation.”

READ: How Bob Marley’s daughter saved women’s football in Jamaica

Kerr takes a selfie with a young fan  after the 2019 Cup of Nations match between Australia and South Korea in March.
Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Kerr takes a selfie with a young fan after the 2019 Cup of Nations match between Australia and South Korea in March.

The Matildas are a youthful, talented and diverse side and among the most popular teams in the country. In 2017 a first victory over three-time world champions the US made the world sit up and take notice as the Matildas captured the Tournament of Nations.

It has been a long road for women’s football in Australia, from posing nude to raise funds to compete at the Sydney Olympics 20 years ago to sixth in the world and expected to progress to the latter stages in France. Defeat against Brazil on Thursday, however, and a much-fancied team could become surprise early casualties.

A tumultuous start of the year, Despotovski believes, can partly explain for the opening defeat against Italy, a team making its first World Cup appearance in 20 years.

In January Alen Stajcic, the coach which guided the Matildas to the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup and to a high of fourth in the world rankings, was surprisingly sacked and replaced by Ante Milicic.

One of Milicic’s first decisions as the Matildas’ new boss was to make his star player the captain. It was an appointment Despotovski regarded as shrewd because it is not only speed and ruthlessness in front of goal which marks Kerr as a great but leadership too.

“She doesn’t lead by words or anything like that, she leads by action on the field,” said Despotovski of a player who scored in that opening game against Italy.

"The biggest change is the publicity around the team." Kerr tells CNN.
Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
"The biggest change is the publicity around the team." Kerr tells CNN.

Kerr has admitted that the team’s form over the last two years has brought with it its own pressure, both negative and positive. With unprecedented success comes expectation.

“The biggest change for myself and my team is the publicity around the team,” Kerr, now in her 10th year as an international, told CNN Sport before the tournament.

“The interest in the team from the last World Cup to now is day and night. Obviously with the good comes the bad, but I think it’s been mostly positive.

“Everyone’s got behind us and loved the way we played but with that comes that pressure, the pressure to have to perform. The year everyone got behind us we had so many good results and that’s what people expect of us. We like that, we like that we have high expectations, but it’s new for everyone to have this type of pressure and to not disappoint people.”

Though Kerr’s personality allows her to take most things in her stride, her maturity and experience has also helped her adapt to the mental pressures that come with being a professional sportswoman.

She admitted she has changed the way she approaches a game. In her younger days she used to play a forthcoming game over and over in her head, but it was an approach which eventually played with her mind. These days she tries not to think too much.

“I like to keep it calm on game day. I’m pretty chilled so it’s just finding the balance between being focused and also feeling relaxed before the game and supporting my teammates,” she said.

A nation awaits to see what their fearless million dollar player can do.