The eruption at Federation Square said it all. As far as feedback goes, pyrotechnics at 11pm more than 10,000km away is a decent barometer. “I wish I was there as well,” said Jackson Irvine. The midfielder is a Melbourne boy and a Socceroos fan from way back. As a kid in 2006 he was in Kaiserslautern to witness his country’s first win at a World Cup – that famous 3-1 result against Japan. Four years later he watched the 2-1 defeat of Serbia.
The wait since then has been interminable. It has lasted longer than the decade he has played for the national team. Back in Australia, “the first win in 12 years” was the ubiquitous headline in print and on the airwaves. In Qatar, journalists showed Irvine footage of the wild scenes at Fed Square. At first he couldn’t speak.
“Jesus Christ,” he eventually said. “It’s hard to even … that just looks absolutely incredible. I hope every single one of them has had a night they’ll remember for the rest of their lives like I’ve had as a fan as well. It’s special.”
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Irvine had just finished espousing the need to keep the significance of the result under wraps, to let it “bubble onto the surface a little bit” but not “boil over” given a pivotal meeting with Denmark awaits in four days.
But he had also just left the Al Janoub Stadium pitch, where everything was boiling over. The full-time whistle, which finally put an end to the late Tunisian onslaught, pulled a plug on the tension and sparked madcap celebrations among the players. Even the introverted Aaron Mooy had his mouth wide open and arms outstretched.
Martin Boyle hobbled out on his crutches, his torn ACL keeping him from playing but not from fulfilling his new, self-assigned role as “official vibes manager”. Graham Arnold slung an arm over his shoulder as the squad formed a circle around the pair, then told them all to celebrate now and then hit the dressing room and get to bed because they hadn’t “done nothing” yet.
By “nothing” he meant make the knockout stages, a very live possibility after France’s defeat of Denmark later on Saturday, which leaves Australia second in Group D with one match to play. To progress would break another drought – this one 16 years old, dating back to the golden generation’s passage to the round of 16, where they lost to Italy under circumstances still controversial to this day.
Is it actually possible? Is it worth even hoping? The Socceroos do live life on the edge, leave their runs late. The past two qualifications came via the playoffs, doing their best work under pressure with it all the line.
That was the case in the playoffs for Russia 2018 under Ange Postecoglou, a goalpost that saved them against Syria before a hard-fought 0-0 away draw in a hostile Honduras set them on the path to a home-leg triumph. It happened again five months ago when, under Graham Arnold, they won those unwinnable playoffs against the United Arab Emirates and Peru.
And this clash, with its antagonistic atmosphere and dirty, hard-nosed football, did have a bit of Peru about it. “It was pretty similar,” said Jamie Maclaren, who made his World Cup debut off the bench. “You know, when they showed up with 15,000 Peruvians and you’re up against it from minute one, sometimes when you’re the underdog and the fans are against you, it actually can work in your favour. It did today – we silenced them, Tunisia are a fantastic team. From minute zero to 96 they were at us and we stayed resolute.”
This performance was the antithesis of that against France. It had Mitchell Duke, near-invisible in the opener, ever-present and with a goal as reward. Mooy, too, was vastly improved, his distribution vital and well-timed tackles a saviour in the final minutes under the pump.
Well-timed tackles, of course, are now synonymous with Harry Souttar, who had an answer to every question in his path and even some that weren’t. Three senior matches into his return from ACL rehab and the Stoke centre-half was already confident enough for a sliding intervention which thwarted a would-be equaliser and might well pique the interest of the Premier League clubs who were circling before his injury last year.
“We had prepared for what they were going to be like, what the atmosphere was going to be like,” Souttar said. “Obviously we know what their fans are like, and we know it will be more of a long-ball game so we had to win that battle first. I’m just so pleased. But we’ve won one game; we’ve still got a huge, huge game to play.”
That may be the case. but for now they have this. This standout display to rival all the others in recent memory. To let the records show that this inexperienced team, with those young players so unfamiliar to much of the country they represent, replicated the stuff of the established legends they succeed. Finally.