Clean, hard, simple: Australia’s Harry Souttar makes giant strides at World Cup

<span>Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

He is “a man mountain”. He is “Superman”. He puts cheese and onion crisps on his sandwiches. And Harry Souttar is probably going to earn Stoke City quite a bit of money during the January transfer window. For now, though, his only focus is reproducing that performance, that last-man tackle. The one that ensured a resurgent Tunisia did not equalise and Australia could claim a first win at a World Cup in 12 years.

Down went Taha Yassine Khenissi in the 85th minute, and up went the dollar signs – and social media. Set it to the Titanic soundtrack, they said. Put his face on a coin. Tattoo it on your neck.

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Shortly after the full-time whistle blew on Saturday’s 1-0 win, Souttar’s Wikipedia page received an unofficial update: “Against Tunisia, Souttar caused mass boners across the great southern land with one of the greatest sniping tackles god’s earth has ever seen.”

By the time the site administrators had removed it Souttar was already modestly talking down his contributions and talking up those of his teammates. As he spoke, both Scotland and Australia were laying claim to him, the boy born in Luthermuir who plays stopper for the Socceroos. It was BBC Scotland that called him “Superman”. Australia is trying to cobble together enough bronze for a 1.98m statue.

Souttar tackles Taha Yassine Khenissi during the Socceroos’ second Group D match against Tunisia.
Souttar tackles Taha Yassine Khenissi during the Socceroos’ second Group D match against Tunisia. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Three days later he is still being sent footage of that defining moment in a career-defining outing. It was the 24-year-old’s third senior match back after a year out with an anterior cruciate ligament tear. His fourth could come against Denmark on Wednesday night (Thursday 2am AEDT), when Australia play for a place in the round of 16 for the first time since 2006.

The first question, of course, is not about that at all, instead one of whether he would like to move up a tier. Premier League clubs were circling before his injury last year, though Stoke’s $35m minimum asking price will undoubtedly have risen based on Souttar’s World Cup campaign. His agent is in Doha and likely fielding phone calls from interested parties, though the player himself insists he has separated himself from any discussions.

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“My focus has got to be the here and now,” Souttar says. “If you ask every player, they want to play at the highest level they can, but my focus is purely on Denmark. I’ll let other people deal with all that for me, I don’t need to do that. I need to just concentrate on my performances on the pitch.”

What, then, makes Souttar so good? Sasa Ognenovski, a former hard-nosed centre-back with 22 Socceroos caps, says his greatest strength is simplicity.

“He’s just a nice, clean, hard, simple defender,” Ognenovski says. “He does his job defensively – he doesn’t complicate things, try to dribble out the back. He doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he just defends really well. He knows when to hit a long pass, when to hit a short pass.

“He made every tackle, it was physical. You see a lot of centre-halves these days that just want to win the ball cleanly all the time and not go to ground. You just have to put your body on the line. It’s as simple as that, and really effective. And he, in the last game in particular, did it really well.”

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Consider also an aerial presence which made mincemeat of some of the Socceroos’ early World Cup qualifying opponents – he scored six goals from his first five international appearances – and a composure alongside Kye Rowles in a blossoming central defensive partnership.

“He is always taking players away in those set pieces, even if the ball doesn’t get to him,” Ognenovski says. “I think they feel a bit more complete in the back line with him as well. He’s a big asset.”

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“Big” is the operative word here. Souttar is one of the tallest players in Qatar and towers over fellow Scotland-born players Martin Boyle and Jason Cummings – even if some of his food choices are questionable. The Socceroos stayed on brand last week, filming a “Scot-eroos” YouTube video of the trio, during which Souttar reveals his choice of sandwich. “Chicken breast and ham on Italian bread,” he starts, “with a bit of onion, cheese and onion crisps sprinkled on top, tomato sauce, three cookies and a Pepsi Max.”

The other pair were about as astonished as some Scotland supporters have been that Souttar was not snapped up by Scotland like his older brother and fellow defender John, who plays for Rangers. “In terms of the Australia thing, listen, I got the phone call,” Souttar says. “It was a very simple decision from my point of view, and it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”