As the modern-day Australia players streamed across the Al Janoub pitch in celebration, as Waltzing Matilda formed a soundtrack probably rarely heard in the city of Al Wakrah,
Tim Cahill was in the plush seats. A Qatari ambassador, the only Australian to score in three World Cups has a status as their greatest player on their stage. He was a talisman of what, by unanimous agreement, was their finest team. The class of 2006 got out of a group and held the eventual winners Italy until a contentious injury-time penalty eliminated them.
Until, from what seemed the least talented Australian team to arrive at a World Cup this millennium surpassed Cahill and co. They reached the last 16, but with further distinctions. “We have been listening and hearing about the golden generation of 2006,” said manager Graham Arnold, who was on Guus Hiddink’s backroom staff then. “They got four points and we have got six. This is the first time ever an Australian team has ever won two games in a row at the World Cup. Maybe we are talking about a new golden generation now.”
Which, when the two squads are compared, is quite some statement. A glimpse at the cast list exacerbates Arnold’s achievement in beating first Tunisia and now Denmark, in Australia’s best ever World Cup result, now. Hiddink’s team had Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore and Brett Emerton as well as Cahill. Ten of the Dutchman’s players squad their trade in England, three more in Italy. Fast forward 16 years and more than half of Arnold’s group play their club football in either the A League (eight) or the Scottish Premier League (six).
The Premier League goes unrepresented, though not for long if the Australia manager’s advice is heeded. A cruciate ligament injury means Harry Souttar has played one game in a year for Stoke City but there have been few better centre-backs in the World Cup so far. “If I was a Premier League club I would be banging on the door so quick, he is that good,” argued Arnold.
And yet, terrific as Souttar was in earning Australia a second successive clean sheet, this is a team that is greater than the sum of its unglamorous, unheralded, almost unknown parts. “People were probably surprised with some of my selections but I know the mentally strong ones who will work for each other and die for each other and they are the ones I back,” said Arnold.
That never-say-die spirit proved integral. If there can be a fearlessness to the best Australian sporting sides, and it was shown when they had the gall to take the lead against France, there is also a resilience. They recovered from an opening 4-1 defeat, just as they had from the loss of a key player. Their match-winner against Denmark, Mathew Leckie, might not have started but for Martin Boyle’s cruciate ligament injury. The Melbourne winger has dual jobs now, serving as scorer for his country and driver for his friend.
“Mathew Leckie has been incredible,” Arnold added. “You could see just watching Melbourne City that in his eyes he has this hunger and drive. And what he is doing with Martin Boyle in the hotel, wheeling him around in the chair because they are best mates.”
As a very different character to have coached Australia in a different sport, Justin Langer, might have put it, that is “elite mateship”. On the eve of the Denmark game, Arnold had argued that football is perhaps the fifth sport in Australia. With the glow of victory, he changed his tune. “I truly believe the Socceroos are the team that unites the nation,” he said.
It is a country that is accustomed to sporting success, a multiple World Cup winner in cricket and both codes of rugby. Its football side kicked off eight days earlier ranked 41st on the planet; they had required two play-offs to reach Qatar. “I think we were probably the last team everyone in Asia thought would qualify for the last 16,” Arnold admitted. “It is remarkable.” Being underestimated may have suited them, but if it was partly because they were in a group with two of the world’s top 10, with the holders and the Euro 2020 semi-finalists, it was also because their starting 11 played for Copenhagen, Columbus Crew, Dundee United, Hearts, Stoke, Celtic, St Pauli, Middlesbrough, Melbourne, Adelaide and Fagiano Okayama.
They may be the most improbable presence in the last 16 since Costa Rica topped a group including Uruguay, Italy and England in 2014. They have the ambition to go further. “No celebrations, no emotion, sleep, no social media,” said Arnold, gearing up for Australia’s first knockout tie in 16 years. The drink his players will be permitted is a bottle of water. He advised them to listen to popular music. Australian to his core, his suggestion was Men At Work. But the men from a land down under won’t be returning there as soon as virtually everyone except themselves expected. Get to the quarter-finals and Cahill and the Premier League and Serie A all-stars will be demoted to the grade of Australia’s silver generation.