It happened in the 58th minute, and René Meulensteen heard it first. The Socceroos assistant coach was in the dugout at Al Janoub Stadium when word filtered through that Tunisia had scored.
Over at the Education City Stadium, Wahbi Khazri had made a mazy run through a second-string France team and taken a 1-0 lead. It meant Australia, who were still 0-0 with Denmark, now had to win to advance as runners-up of Group D.
France were supposed to account for Tunisia with ease, a scenario that would have only required Graham Arnold’s side to draw with the Danes.
But Didier Deschamps, in the knowledge his title holders had already qualified, had rested almost his entire first-choice starting XI. That decision rather complicated matters in the concurrent final group match across the city.
Arnold was on his feet in Australia’s technical area when Meulensteen was informed about Khazri’s goal. He might have had to break the news to Arnold at some point, except that he didn’t have time.
“It was just a quiet word from Tony Vidmar in my ear – no more information, no reason to jump at it and panic,” Meulensteen said afterwards. “The great thing was it happened, and then a minute later, we scored.”
Two minutes later, to be exact, when Mitchell Duke started a devastating counter-attack, finding Riley McGree who, in turn, anticipated Leckie’s run from halfway.
The latter then raced off on his own, twisting Joakim Mæhle to his will before veering left and sending his finish across the front of Kasper Schmeichel’s goal and inside the far post.
“That is when I told Arnie ‘listen, Tunisia is winning 1-0’,” Muelensteen said. “And I grabbed Miloš Degenek to say ‘get in a huddle and tell the players to make sure they know where we are [and] we have to win, we have to keep a clean sheet’.”
Degenek did his duty and conveyed the message – except that nobody believed him.
“I said if we don’t win the Tunisians will sneak through to the round of 16 on goal difference,” Degenek said. “The boys thought it was me psyching them up so we won’t lose, but it was actually me being serious.”
The 28-year-old has both a dry wit and a self-described “lion mentality” which drives him to win at all costs, and Jackson Irvine admitted he thought his teammate was relaying fake news to keep them motivated.
“In the back of my mind I was actually like, ‘well done, Miloš, that’s a good idea,” Irvine said. “Tell the boys that we need a win, absolutely’. And then you find out later on [he was telling the truth].”
In his post-match press conference, Arnold said he did not know Tunisia had beaten France 1-0 until after the final whistle.
“I would have been absolutely devastated if we had got a draw and it didn’t pan out the way it did,” he said.