Popularity wanes but Tim Cahill remains on verge of joining World Cup greats | Jonathan Howcroft

He may no longer be the talisman of previous editions but the 38-year-old remains influential

Only three men in football history have scored goals at four separate World Cup finals: Pelé, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose. Later this month this trio could become a quartet as Tim Cahill strives to extend a scoring streak dating back to 2006. Should Australia’s record goalscorer find the back of the net in Russia it would cap a remarkable international career for a player who emerged as a box-to-box midfielder and represents a country that has won only two matches in finals history.

So significant is Cahill’s place in Australian football one might imagine an abundance of praise for the tormentor of corner flags as the countdown to Russia 2018 gathers pace; one final opportunity for fans to salute a living legend at his valedictory tournament. Sadly, that has not been the case. No longer the talisman of previous World Cups Cahill’s selection in the 23-man squad has been met with far from unanimous support.

The argument follows that Cahill’s recent performances do not warrant selection – he played only 160 minutes of league football across the 2017-18 season, first at Melbourne City, then at Millwall. He failed to score for either club. Hardly the kind of form to make the defences of France, Denmark and Peru quiver.

But despite a lean run at club level Cahill began Australia’s last competitive international against Honduras and two games prior to that scored twice in the must-win playoff against Syria. Moreover, 105 caps and 50 goals is a body of work that earns a mountain of trust.

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Faith in Cahill’s ability to rise to the big occasion has made him a “special case” according to Van Marwijk. It seems likely he will take on the mantle of Australia’s plan B in Russia, the impact substitute to lift spirits when hopes fade, or secure an already positive result with a late flourish of industry and nous. “Timmy is always the one that I had [as a] kind of ‘break the glass if needed’ and I don’t think that’s changed,” explained former coach Ange Postecoglou on Melbourne radio recently.

It is a role that suits Cahill’s physicality and experience. A series of short wrecking-ball cameos to unsettle defences, chase lost causes and generally interrupt the flow of matches that are likely to find Australia on the backfoot for long periods. It is easy to envisage a disruptive Cahill changing a game off the bench to great effect.

Tim Cahill
Cahill scores against Syria in the Socceroos’ Asian playoff in World Cup qualifying. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Even if the injury cloud hovering over Tomi Jurić develops into a full-blown storm, Cahill is unlikely to wriggle himself into a starting berth. That job will instead be assigned to Andrew Nabbout, who leapt to the front of the queue in a goalscoring audition against Czech Republic, or possibly even Jamie Maclaren, who has impressed Van Marwijk with his commitment following his 11th hour reprieve.

Still, Cahill brings with him several attributes no others possess. The veteran not only promises oomph off the bench but leadership, experience and confidence in the dressing room. Countless colleagues have lauded Cahill’s positive influence as a team-mate and nowhere is this more valuable than a World Cup, one in which Australia will rank as underdogs every time they step onto the pitch.

The backlash to Cahill’s selection is magnified by his continued status as the face of the Socceroos. From onesies to televisions to petrol stations, Cahill is shorthand for Australia’s World Cup ambitions, in spite of the decline in his on-field value. It has led to a conspiracy theory that his selection was mandated by Football Federation Australia regardless of Van Marwijk’s preference.

Cahill profile

Cahill’s likeness is irritatingly ubiquitous right now but it is unfair to punish him for the inability of his younger team-mates to progress into household names and offer equivalent value to sponsors. Similarly, his employers engaging in a marketing stunt demanding so much advance preparation it positively invited scrutiny is not his responsibility. Tall poppy syndrome is alive and well.

The reality, as awkward as it may be, is that a 38-year old Cahill with all his limitations remains a player of influence to Australia’s World Cup campaign on-field and a leading figure in converting that into commercial success off it. And he could yet enter the pantheon of World Cup greats over the course of the next few weeks.

Contributor

Jonathan Howcroft

The GuardianTramp

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