If there was ever a game for Garang Kuol, this was it – and it very nearly was his. With injury-time ticking down, a (very) young substitute was in the box, twisting into space and approaching goal. When he shot on the turn there was every chance the Socceroos might have pushed Argentina to 120 minutes. Had Emiliano Martinez possessed slightly shorter arms, anything was possible.
It took a dive and a stretch to deny Kuol, but his 25 or so minutes on the pitch at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium was a landmark moment, not just for the teenager himself but also for the World Cup. At 18 years and 79 days, Kuol became the youngest player to play in the knockout stages at a finals since Pelé in 1958.
In the lead-up to the tournament, when expectations around Australia’s campaign were non-existent, there was a sense that the country at least had a secret X-factor, a kid who could maybe do something wondrous to shock an opponent and show off to the world. A lot has happened since then, and quite a few X-factors have made themselves known. But Kuol’s almost-equaliser felt like a fine way to finish – a sort of hat-tip to the future. Liked what you saw there? You just wait ‘til 2026.
Kuol talks with his feet more than his mouth, in short, no-nonsense statements. “To be honest, I didn’t really see much,” he says of his late chance. “Just tried to turn around and shoot, but on the replay I can see the keeper rushed out. Just a learning curve. Pretty tough it didn’t go in. Good save.”
Before he was subbed on, he had told himself he would score. Arnold had told him the same thing. “Both had the same expectations,” he says. “So when I wasn’t able to score I was very disappointed. Just got to move on.”
It is the mention of Lionel Messi that lights up something on his face. “Going one on one with Messi for a bit, like a dream,” he says, before turning his attention to what this Socceroos team can become. “I think in the future you’ll see a team at the level of Brazil and Argentina. People think [players] in Europe can fly or something. All humans, all with two feet. It’s just about the passion and the heart.”
Kuol knows all about that. He is yet to start a senior football match, selected by Arnold on form off the bench for the Central Coast Mariners. That’s kind of also how he was selected by Newcastle United, a surreal leap reserved for only the most promising talent who turned heads playing for the A-League All-Stars against Barcelona in May.
When he signed with Newcastle at the end of September, Eddie Howe preached patience in the face of excitement, prefaced a loan move with a view to develop a future Premier League player. At which club that development will take place remains an unanswered question, though somewhere in Portugal is a reported possibility.
“Not too sure yet, exciting,” Kuol says, before being stopped mid-sentence by a Socceroos media handler who promptly moved him on and told journalists only to ask questions about the World Cup. Before he goes anywhere, he will return to the Mariners for a final few games, and to see the community which had watched their young star in Qatar from a distance.
Kuol, the youngest Socceroo since Harry Kewell in 1996, has been followed closely and en masse from his home town of Shepparton in northern Victoria, where his family moved as refugees after fleeing South Sudan via his birthplace, Egypt.
“He makes us so happy,” Kuol’s aunty, Agoness, said last week. “It makes us feel like we can fly, watching him play at the World Cup. And [we’re] so happy for his parents, who worked so hard for this.”