When Tim Cahill announced his retirement from international football on Tuesday he did so as the greatest ever representative of Australia’s men’s national team. His 107 caps is a record for an outfield player, and his 50 goals almost double the tally of the next most prolific Socceroo.
“Every single cap has been an honour,” he said on Tuesday. “I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to represent my country.”
Despite these monuments to consistency and longevity, Cahill’s international career was one defined by moments not aggregates. Examples are not difficult to recall, like netting Australia’s first ever World Cup finals goals in that never-to-be-forgotten comeback in Kaiserslautern, or smashing one of the most spectacular volleys in World Cup history against the Netherlands in 2014, to finding the back of the net twice against Syria at the age of 37 to keep his country’s 2018 World Cup dream alive. He was the definition of a big game player.
Cahill’s on-field success was amplified by his visibility off it. For a decade he bore the brunt of marketing and PR duties for the national team, throughout which he was always the model professional, however misguided the venture. As the Socceroos transitioned away from the household names of the golden generation, Cahill remained a reassuring presence for teammates, coaches, sponsors and supporters, relishing the pressure that could have suffocated others.
He showed it was possible to commit to the national side while also pursuing a top level club career in Europe, no mean feat given the travails of his predecessors. “I’ve never met anyone who loves the Socceroos as much as me,” he asserted in 2015. This devotion manifested in a will to win that improved teammates and galvanised the Australian dressing room. The selection of Cahill had a multiplying effect which will be hard for new coach Graham Arnold to replace.
Cahill achieved all this despite being a player of – comparatively – limited ability. While his status as the greatest Socceroo is surely unchallenged, the title of best perhaps belongs elsewhere, to someone with purer footballing attributes like Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka. But that is not to denigrate Cahill, the opposite in fact, as it is testament to how hard he has trained and how much he has sacrificed, for so long, to extract every ounce of talent in order to maintain such record-breaking standards.
This resilience can be seen in Cahill’s progression as an international footballer from dynamic pest to talismanic target man, to impact substitute, at each stage recognising the need to reinvent himself to continue adding value. Throughout each iteration he remained dangerous in the air, a reflection of his bravery and ability to influence matches by force of will. Despite standing just 180cm tall, Cahill headed half his international goals. “He is very determined and very decisive,” former Socceroos coach Guus Hiddink enthused back in 2009. “He is a wonderful talent, very sharp, full of impact and dangerous around the box.”
While Cahill now retires a national icon, he very nearly didn’t play for Australia at all. As a 14-year old he represented Samoa’s under-20s in a World Youth Championship qualifier. It took almost a decade of lobbying FIFA to convince the world governing body that Cahill should be allowed to also play for the country of his birth. He eventually debuted as a substitute against South Africa in 2004 (replacing Marco Bresciano), the week before firing Millwall into their first FA Cup final.
Cahill’s final bow was taken against Peru at the conclusion of Australia’s 2018 World Cup campaign. His departure marks the end of an era. Back in 2006 he was the seventh-youngest squad member for that landmark trip to Germany, but from that joyous World Cup only Mark Milligan – who didn’t feature during the tournament – is in the running for future caps.
It remains to be seen what Cahill chooses to do next, but despite being nearer 39 than 38, he is expected to continue his club career somewhere. After barely featuring for either Melbourne City or Millwall last season, however, his next move will most likely be with a view to future coaching ambitions. We will learn more at a press conference on Friday.
For now, we applaud a retiring champion, the greatest of all the Socceroos.