Aziz Behich had fire in his eyes and a protest on his lips, remonstrating as if he hadn’t just needlessly upended Papu Gomez. The referee was hearing none of it – emotion gets you nowhere on this stage. The left-back had done it simply because he was pissed off, rankled by a shoulder charge from Lionel Messi that was every bit as legitimate as his subsequent move was not.
World Cup matches are decided by moments. By the angled head of Mitchell Duke and the cut inside of Mat Leckie. By a free-kick for Messi near the corner flag. And it had to be him. History will show tonight was all about Messi. About his 1,000th match and his first goal in the knockout stages of a World Cup. If Argentina go on to win the thing, Australia will be nothing more than a step in the right direction.
In that sense, there are worse ways for the Socceroos to go than to be a part of a bigger positive story than their own big positive story. They could have been knocked out by, say, a dive in the box from Fabio Grosso, or an underwhelming group-stage showing in which they scored no goals from open play. Qatar 2022 was not Australia’s tournament, but it was also very much Australia’s tournament. It was the tournament of dancing in Federation Square and pop-up live sites around the country, of politicians with open ears and maybe now even open wallets, and of once again waking up at stupid hours for a reason other than to engage in self-flagellation under the guise of supporting your national team.
The Socceroos – including an otherwise-excellent Behich – will return home as heroes. Their coach, overseeing the final game of his contract, may have just bought himself another – if he wants it. After the opening goal, Graham Arnold’s hands followed Messi’s to the sky but for a very different reason, the sign of a heart and soul, poured into this project for four and a half years, on a comedown from the heavenly place he has inhabited for the past 10 days.
“I just hope that everyone back in Australia really respects what we’ve done and are proud of us as well,” Arnold said afterwards. “We took it to them. I felt that we finished off well. We had a great chance at the end there to equalise. I’ve got to be very, very proud of the boys. Just so grateful at the effort they’ve put in for me.”
Of course, the post-mortem will include some if onlys. If only Behich did not blow a gasket. If only a defender was standing in the exact spot Messi placed his finish instead of in the five spots directly surrounding the needle he threaded through them. If only, when there was still a chance of an equaliser, Mat Ryan had made that clearance the first time instead of attempting to dribble past Rodrigo De Paul.
But the overriding story is that this was not a bad Socceroos performance. Those match-deciding errors aside, it was a very good performance with all the makings of yet another upset of a much higher power. It was worthy of a team reaching the quarter-finals; the moving mass of blue-and-white tension in the stands confirmed it to be so. Australia forced the issue, yanked Messi out of his first-half dormancy, made him come alive even if to their own detriment. They were a lump in the throat of football gods for all the world to see.
Keanu Baccus, who not three weeks ago had Messi in his fantasy five-a-side team, shirt-fronted his hero in the opening minutes. The St Mirren man was here to play Paris Saint-Germain. It perfectly encapsulated the lack of deference that rendered this contest far closer to equal on the field than it appeared on paper.
The almost comeback did that too. With almost 80 minutes gone, Craig Goodwin smashed an errant shot that took a deflection and flew into the far corner. Behich, having long rededicated himself to the cause, took off on a run for the ages, a slalom past four players which would have made for one of the great goals of this World Cup had his shot not been blocked by a stretching Lisandro Martinez. Garang Kuol almost announced himself to the world but for a brilliant intervention by Emi Martinez in injury-time.
Then it was the end. It was Mozart’s Requiem, the Socceroos pursued by death but still writing their own funeral on the edge of consciousness, willing it into existence with their final breaths. Now they are gone, but leave behind a brilliant score.