MY earliest meaningful world cup memory is of my beloved Scotland being pitted against Brazil in 1982, in Seville, on a balmy, sweltering Spanish night. Minutes into the tie, the ball dropped into the inside right channel from a knock down from John Wark. The recipient, a Scottish centre half deployed for the night as a right back, raced onto the loose ball, controlled it into his stride, and unleashed a strike on the half volley the like of which Waldir Peres, the Brazilian goalie, had never seen in his life. Into the top corner it bulleted. Narey, from that moment, walked on water in the eyes of the footballing world, bar Jimmy Hill. A school friend of ours reports that at that moment, her mother rose from the sofa, walked to the television, and kissed the screen. Of such magical things are World Cups made.
Of course, Brazil went on to subject the Scots to the kind of footballing lesson few sides since have ever been on the wrong end of, bar possibly the Spanish a few days ago. The tutors on that more recent occasion? The Dutch. Oh dear. But Ange Postecoglou, as we’ve so clearly established on these very pages in recent weeks, is intent upon building a football team in his, and his nation’s image. And boy do the first few minutes of this game reflect that. Ange had been as good as his word. Australia took the game to the Dutch, were first to every loose ball, harried and pressed them at every turn, and forced their supposed superiors into the kind of errors we’re unaccustomed to seeing from them.
So when Robben craftily allowed the bouncing ball to run across him and around Wilkinson, and when Wilkinson didn’t quite manage to fell him before he got into his stride, there seemed a horrible injustice to the seconds that followed. Robben is now officially the quickest player in world football, it’s said. ‘Meep meep’. Off he popped. 1-0 against the run of play. I sighed to myself and hoped the Aussies would stick to the game plan.
At that point the camera flashed to an Australian man in the crowd, hands newly covering his face in Munchian despair, and as he slowly removed them, the word “FUUUUU…” came to his lips. My brother-in-law and I burst out laughing in unison, but then suddenly, the camera cut back to the live feed, a ball floating in from deep on the Australian right, and as it dropped slowly from the sky, somehow we knew. The ball moved in slow motion – the kind you experience in car crashes – a kind of heightened consciousness – the kind in The Matrix where Neo floats mid-air, cracking the jaws of countless agents, obliterating their aviator shades with a single blow – the kind of connection we then saw from some kind of superhuman being on the park. Marco Van Cahill.
What a goal.
At that point, both myself and my brother-in-law were on our feet, and could quite feasibly have reprised the actions of my mate’s mother. That was the moment of this world cup. The only way it could have been topped would have been if Sterling’s shot had flown in during the opening seconds of England’s game against Italy, where for one magical moment, my brother-in-law and I both forgot where we came from, and marvelled in the magic that football is capable of conjuring up.
Cahill, of course, is only too human. A player who, on paper, is ill-suited to lead the line for this kind of side. He’s not the most mobile. His movement has never been the most inclusive for his side. He’s a specialist – a rough housing yard dog. A human leaping machine. But here, for that one moment, an ordinary man was touched by genius, and the ball thundered into the roof of the net via crossbar and turf, the keeper powerless to stop it.
We watched the remainder of the game with a reverent smile. There were other great moments, but broadly speaking, the Australians did themselves proud. A largely inexperienced team led by three more senior, wiley figures on the park, all hands showed incredible energy and persistence in their pressing and competitiveness, knocking the Dutch out of their stride and preventing them from establishing their own tempo and passing rhythm, both of which are fundamental to their style of play under Van Gaal. The Aussies imposed themselves and kept the ball for long spells. The Robben goal didn’t get the chance to jolt them from their growing confidence, so instant was the response. Beyond that point, as a spectator, you found yourself with fingers crossed, hoping for the fairytale ending.
Leckie and Orr, this time, had that little extra effectiveness about them, ably supported by McGowan and Davidson. Where their running and power had seemed helpful but aimless in the Costa Rica game, this time there was purpose and incision. Cahill was muscular and confrontational, sad though it was to see the promising Bruno Martins-Indi stretchered from the field. It’s a man’s game, and it was a man’s challenge. Cahill provided the reference point both tactically and confrontationally. The Australians took that tone throughout their number, and confronted their marks, whose pedigree on paper might have cowed them. Bresciano, a man with many a mile on his clock, burst lungs to get into the box and support. Likewise McKay, whose name the commentary team struggled with, oddly – have they never watched Porridge? The endeavour and commitment was testament to the team’s belief in their manager. I’m not sure Australia need a Steve Peters – Ange Postecoglou’s indomitability seems contagious. He said after the game, “I put pressure on the players and the staff to go and get at the big teams. Saying it and doing it are two different things. But today they did that and they didn’t get a reward. It’s heartbreaking. Everyone was outstanding. For the majority of the game, we looked more likely to win that game than not.” Van Gaal was duly impressed, saying “This coach is really good. He allows his team to play an attacking game.”
An attacking game can inspire otherwise journeyman players to heights they might not have thought themselves capable of. Bresciano was replaced by Bozanic, who fed on a ball from Cahill and drew the handball for the penalty. Jedinak was cool as ice as he slotted it home, and we laughed in delighted bemusement. But then, once more, a lapse on the right as they again tried to break was snatched on by Depay, who eventually worked it through to Van Persie in space in the Australian box. The ball, as happens often as not in these circumstances, ended up in the roof of the net – a great finish – and the sides were level. The replay singled out Jason Davidson as playing his man onside. They’ll learn. Little details at this level are the difference between victory and defeat. When a player is as intent on influencing things as Depay seemed to be, you have to keep your concentration and take your chances.
This was cruelly demonstrated minutes later as the Australian forward line closed down the Dutch keeper and back line, and forced another error. Tommy Oar found himself with space and options on the left of the Dutch box, but somehow cannoned the ball at Leckie, who tried his best to improvise and direct the ball on goal with his trunk, but was unable to finish. A better, calmer ball would have seen them comfortably at 3-2. As it unfolded seconds later, with De Guzman finding Depay in a pocket of space in front of the Aussie centre halves, they were made to pay the age-old price. Matt Ryan might have done better with the shot, but it was well struck, swerving viciously, and bounce in that horrible spot just ahead of him. It nestled in the corner, and that was just about that.
But what a wonderful, heartening performance from the tournament’s so-called whipping boys. Teams should play the game and take it to their opponents. Teams should never play fearful, risk averse football. That’s the message of this World Cup so far. Don’t accept reputation. Don’t be cowed. Take the game to the other team and see if they can handle it: the Postecoglou method.
In that context, the last word belongs to Ange, who by now is a hero of mine. He said, “People were saying we weren’t going to score a goal and we would just try and survive. In both games we have taken it to the opposition. I firmly believe that we have only just started on this journey. The goal is to come back in four years’ time, that they fear us before we get on the pitch as much as they fear us on the pitch now. There is no doubt now both Chile and the Dutch know they have been in a game and respect the way we have gone about our football.”
I’ll blow a kiss to the screen when they play the Spanish, that’s for sure.