Aziz Behich’s mazy run
Let’s start with what might have been – what would have been the goal of this tournament so far and one of the all-time great World Cup goals. “If Aziz Behich had scored that, it would have been like Lionel Messi in a yellow shirt,” said coach Graham Arnold after the Argentina match.
The Socceroos had just pulled one back to give themselves renewed hope when the left-back channelled his inner-Messi and went on a marauding, weaving run that carried him past one defender, in between another two, all the way into the opposition box, and then back inside a fourth man in blue and white stripes to get a clear sight of the Argentinian goal.
Behich’s right foot swung at the ball; glory and a place in the annals of Australia sporting history awaited. Sadly, Lisandro Martínez had other ideas. His brilliant last-ditch tackle blocked the effort, and Australia ultimately went home.
Garang Kuol’s nearly moment
Included in Graham Arnold’s squad for his potential as an “impact player” off the bench, the 18-year-old came within a whisker of living up to his billing on the biggest of stages.
Having made his World Cup debut as a substitute in the opener against France (becoming the youngest Socceroo since Harry Kewell in 1996) Kuol was then brought on against Argentina in the last-16 game (becoming the youngest player to feature in the knockout stage of a World Cup since Pelé in 1958).
His moment arrived deep in stoppage time after a deft first touch to control Craig Goodwin’s cross allowed him to roll Nicolás Tagliafico and tee up a shooting opportunity. Score and Australia would send the match to extra-time. But, like Behich 15 minutes earlier, he was denied by an outstretched Argentine limb, this time the arm of Emiliano Martínez. Nevertheless, it was a brilliant piece of skill and a truly memorable moment, one which alerted the world to Kuol’s talents and signals a bright future. Arnold has suggested the advent of a new golden generation, and Kuol is likely at the heart of it.
Federation Square lights up
Football in Australia, we are told, is a minority sport. No one cares about football any more. The domestic leagues are on a downward spiral. There’s no way football can – or will – ever compete with other codes. The game, at the professional level at least, is dying a slow and painful death.
And yet. And yet the Socceroos’ run in Qatar captivated a nation for the past two weeks, hauled football back on to the front pages and breakfast TV, prompted Socceroos scarves to be proudly displayed in parliament, and even had the prime minister tweeting about it.
Of course much of this novel interest is from once-every-four-year blow-ins, but the scenes in Melbourne for the 2am kick-off against Tunisia – with thousands in attendance in the dead of night – gave a reminder that football’s heart is still beating in Australia. The question now for the game is how to harness that passion and dedication to bring a sleeping giant into the mainstream.
Four Australian goals to enjoy
It took just nine minutes for the Socceroos to open their account in Qatar. Craig Goodwin’s well-taken goal stunned defending world champions France and while the euphoria of leading the defending champions in a World Cup match lasted just 18 minutes, it would not be the last time Australia found the back of the net.
Mitch Duke’s perfectly executed header did for Tunisia before Mat Leckie’s wonderful jinking solo effort secured passage from Group D by the same 1-0 scoreline. Craig Goodwin did the heavy lifting for Australia’s final goal of the tournament against Argentina, although his deflected strike went down as an Enzo Fernández own-goal. It was the first time Australia have scored in every game of a World Cup finals campaign, and only once have they scored more – in 2006 Tim Cahill (two), John Aloisi, Craig Moore and Harry Kewell made it five in total – and each goal in Qatar was savoured with just as much gusto as in Germany.
Graham Arnold gets his dues
The coach was nearly out of a job not so long ago, having overseen a slump in form that extended the long and winding road to qualification for Qatar via the tortuous playoff route.
He might still be out of a job, despite everything achieved at the finals, given his contract is up and Football Australia has yet to confirm if he’ll be offered a new deal. But what Arnold has ensured with his team’s run to the last 16 is that he has proved the doubters wrong.
No one can argue with the bare fact that he guided a Socceroos side to the last 16 of a World Cup for just the second time. And he did so by getting the best out of a group of players far less feted than their predecessors in 2006.
Time will tell if this latest crop will prove to be the country’s next “golden generation” but for now, Arnold – who gloriously said after the win over Denmark, “No celebrations, no emotion. Sleep, no social media” – may now allow himself a moment to reflect on a hugely satisfying campaign.