Australia, Socceroos best moments against France, Tunisia, Denmark


World Cups are about magic moments. The Socceroos, unheralded and written off by many, have created more than their fair share this year.

Here is the story of Australia’s continuing World Cup campaign so far, told through the key moments and turning points in the group stage.

‘OH MY GOD’

Australia had started well in their opening match against France, competing fiercely in the first few minutes.

“You’re going in without any friendlies in your first game at the World Cup against the world champions,” says Alex Wilkinson, who played all three matches for the Socceroos at the 2014 World Cup. “It’s high stakes. Just straight in. It was a really good start, we were causing them some problems.”

As French news service France24 reported in its live coverage: “The reigning world champions are feverish and the Australians are taking advantage of it.”

Then the improbable happened. Mathew Leckie received a long ball from Harry Souttar on the right, beat France’s Lucas Hernandez, and crossed to Craig Goodwin who blasted it in. One-nil.

As Harry Kewell aptly put it in the SBS commentary box: “Oh my God.” The stands erupted, the players jumped for joy. “A fantastic goal and they’d earned it,” says ex-Socceroos striker David Mitchell.

“It was definitely a training ground move,” says 2006 Socceroos legend John Aloisi. “It’s not just that Leckie pushed forward to receive the ball, it’s Jackson Irvine making a great forward run to drag the centre-back out of position, giving Goodwin the opportunity.”

Goodwin described the moment as “pure elation”. The Australians had hope.

‘HEAVY TOUCH’

France aren’t world champions for nothing, and swiftly moved up the gears, equalising through Adrien Rabiot in the 27th minute. Five minutes later Australian right-back Nathaniel Atkinson was caught in possession by Rabiot after a heavy touch. After a quick one-two with Kylian Mbappe, he crossed to Olivier Giroud for a simple finish.

“Atkinson could have dropped deeper, it was a heavy touch, but Irvine played it to him and could have given him a better option,” Aloisi says. “I thought Behich was a little too wide out on the other side of the field. We were just too open.”

“The kid actually did decently well,” coach Graham Arnold said.

“He did his best against one of the best players in the world.”

Atkinson himself was rueful after the match.

“It’s not hidden, how quick that guy [Mbappe] is,” he said.

“You give him one step, and he’s gone. As a team, you can always come up with a plan. But sometimes if it’s one-v-one, he gets the better of you.”

‘IT COMPOUNDS’

From then on, it was an exercise in damage control for the stunned Socceroos. Australia didn’t crumble, but they were pinned back.

“We did fall apart a little bit towards the end,” says Mitchell. “Once they scored they had the momentum. It’s hard psychologically.”

Socceroos players after their loss to France.Credit:Getty

Wilkinson, a veteran defender, said: “When you’re defending for long periods, if you can’t hold the ball for more than one or two passes, it gets harder and harder to clear, to get the ball out of your own defensive zone. You’re spending so much energy defending in a deep block. It compounds and compounds and compounds. If you can’t keep the ball and you’re copping attack after attack against a good team like the French, goals will come.”

It finished 4-1. “I thought that this could happen,” Aloisi says. “In any game, you’ll come under pressure. You have to fall back on what you’ve been practising in training — that’s how you get out of it. As soon as you start losing your shape and do things that might weaken your structure, that’s when you become really stretched. You have to try and ride through the situation.

“But when you’re up against Mbappe and he’s running at you all the time, there’s no easy solution.”

‘PURE ECSTASY’

If Australia were to make it out of the group stage, the pre-tournament consensus was that the Tunisia match held the key. The Socceroos brought the intensity. It peaked in the 23rd minute when Mitchell Duke dropped into midfield to receive a through ball from Souttar. He played it to Riley McGree, who spread it out to Goodwin on the left wing.

“It was a move they had practised,” says Aloisi. “They pressured with the midfielders. They beat the press with a ball from Souttar to Duke, then the great lay-off to Goodwin out wide. Aziz Behich makes the run into midfield, just enough to draw a player and make it two versus two in the box. There was a little bit of luck in the deflection but they created it.”

Goodwin’s deflected cross sprayed to Duke, whose glancing header nestled in the corner of the net. It was a high-octane goal that set the tone for the rest of Australia’s performance.

“A great goal, at a great time,” Mitchell says. “It was luck, but you need that. Duke did brilliantly to receive the ball and keep going.”

The goalscorer described the moment, which he celebrated by signalling to his son Jaxson in the stands, as “pure ecstasy”.

“It has been a lot of a sacrifice — the family, being alone a lot of the time in the last couple of years, it hasn’t been easy,” he said.

“But these kinds of moments make those sacrifices worth it and that’s the mentality you need to have.”

Australia had the crucial lead. Now they had to hang onto it.

‘THE DNA’

The midfield intensity of Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine and the rest made the difference, chasing down the second balls and stopping Tunisia making a comeback.

“It’s an Australian quality that’s been there for years,” Aloisi says. “We’re not a team that can just sit off and wait for the opposition to make a move. It didn’t surprise me, we’ve seen it before. It’s what Australian teams are all about. We’ve always had it – it used to be [Mile] Jedinak, it used to be [Vince] Grella. Now it’s Mooy and Irvine.”

Mitchell sees some parallels with the team spirit and grit Australia displayed under Frank Arok in the 1980s — coincidentally also a period when several Socceroos had Scottish backgrounds and a certain Graham Arnold was starting to make his mark as a young striker.

“People talk about the Aussie DNA, but it’s been there a long time, and we had it today. We always punch above our weight. Obviously things are different now. Arnie as a coach is very experienced, he played himself in Holland and Belgium, he has great coaching experience and he was a big part of the Guus Hiddink era. But you can see the pattern. He sets his teams up defensively and they are always there for each other, always backing each other up. Great to see.”

“It’s right up there. Right up there with the very best defender, midfielder, forward – it’s one of the best individual displays I’ve seen.”

Jackson Irvine

‘THE TACKLE’

Waves of attacks were being broken up, and it was Souttar who did more than anyone to break Tunisian hearts. When centre-back Kye Rowles mistimed a bouncing ball, Tunisia’s Taha Yassine Khenissi was through on goal. But Souttar’s memorable covering sprint, crunching tackle and ice cool recovery snuffed out the chance.

“That kind of tackle doesn’t just lift your team, it affects the opposition,” Aloisi says. “They see that even if you make a mistake there will be a teammate covering, it deflates the opposition. That’s why it was so big in the moment.

“It was just great. Don’t forget questions were being asked about Souttar’s fitness, he’d only had a couple of games [after knee reconstruction surgery] and he showed in that moment that he can lift the team. It was massive.”

Wilkinson said: “A lot of it is instinctive. You don’t have time to make the calculation in these moments. There’s no time to think. You would’ve just seen the ball coming past Kye and thought ‘I’ve got to make the challenge before the ball gets into the box’. He made up the ground and timed it to perfection, but he kept the ball in and moved it forward. And what was great to see was two or three other Aussie players coming in to back him up. To be able to do that at the end of the game, it showed how committed they were, how much they wanted it.”

Jackson Irvine says: “That moment, that tackle, it was celebrated almost more than the goal, I think, in certain ways. That will be one that’s played for years to come.

“It’s right up there. Right up there with the very best defender, midfielder, forward – it’s one of the best individual displays I’ve seen.”

‘THE DARK HORSES’

It all came down to this. Would the Tunisia win be an aberration, or was it a taste of things to come for the Socceroos? Denmark were determined to show it was the former.

Aziz Behich celebrates after Australia’s win over Tunisia.

Aziz Behich celebrates after Australia’s win over Tunisia.Credit:Getty

“It started out opposite to the first two group games,” says Wilkinson. “They really took it up to us, they were creating space between the lines, they looked pretty good. They really had us camped in our own half for the first 30 minutes.”

Mat Ryan stood tall in the Australian goal several times, no more than in the 11th minute when Danish midfielder Mathias Jensen slipped through into space on the right and drove a shot hard at goal. Ryan leapt to turn it around the near post. And that was as close as Denmark came.

“There was that long period at the start of the game where they were really giving it to us,” says Mitchell. “And you’re dealing with a top side — ranked, I think, 10th in the world, one of the dark horses for the World Cup — and they had us pinned right back. Then when you see your goalkeeper make a top save like that, it’s given the team a lift. You could see the belief was there, the desire was there.”

Mathew Leckie gets the better of Danish gloveman Kasper Schmeichel.Credit:Getty/AP

‘LOW AND HARD’

Denmark’s momentum had faded, and the Australians started to click on either side of half-time. As word filtered through of Tunisia taking the lead over France in the other group match, it changed the equation Australia faced. A draw might not be enough.

Souttar won the ball once again in defence, playing it forward to find McGree, who found Leckie with a long pass. The winger had two players to beat. He cut inside, then back, then drilled the ball past Kasper Schmeichel into the Danish net. Cue early morning pandemonium in hundreds of thousands of households.

“I was up off the couch, dog barking next to me, it was unbelievable,” says Mitchell, the scorer of crucial World Cup qualifying goals himself in the past. “It was one of those moments. Leckie was calm, he’s got experience, he’s played in the Bundesliga. A lot of players might hold it too long in that situation. But he had an opportunity and he took it.”

Leckie talked through his split-second timing afterwards: “In those moments, you don’t think too much or you don’t have time to think,” he told SBS. “It happens so fast. It was a great ball. One more man to beat. I wanted to cut in. He went back that way. I went the other way. Low and hard. It’s difficult for a keeper to save.”

‘THE LONGEST HALF HOUR’

This was it: hold out for the last third of the match and Australia were through. The Socceroos metaphorically filled sandbags and manned the trenches, but had the composure to mount some raids of their own to keep the Danes under pressure.

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“We put our bodies on the line, we were there for each other, backing each other up,” says Wilkinson. “They were immense, running and chasing them down. I actually thought Denmark looked more dangerous in the first 30 minutes. We just were able to close them down.”

Despite the frenetic action on the pitch, time moved slowly. Arnold made a crucial substitution, bringing on an extra defender in Bailey Wright, which allowed right full-back Milos Degenek more scope to defend out wide.

“It was the longest half-hour,” Mitchell says, fighting back tears. “But they were great. A lot of the credit goes to Arnie. He talks about the family in this team, the brotherhood and we saw it. It’s what they’ve worked on at the training ground — always covering for each other. I’m just so proud. People are watching this all over, following the team, following the story and I just think ‘this is the beautiful game’.”

Watch every match of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League on Stan Sport. Returns for the Round of 16 in February 2023, with all matches streaming ad-free, live and on demand.



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