Mitchell Duke knew he was going to score against Tunisia. He’d told his family as much before the game, and also let his coach know he would soon join the small group of Socceroos to score at a World Cup. Just to be sure, he did some prep work with his son, Jaxson, teaching him how to make a letter J with his fingers.
When the striker fulfilled his prophecy on Saturday, netting the winner to resuscitate Australia’s campaign, he turned to where his family sat in the Al Janoub Stadium stands and made the J sign they had practised. He didn’t know it at the time but Jaxson, who was wearing his dad’s No 15 jersey, made the same signal right back.
It was a cute moment during a heated 90 minutes that, in the context of Duke’s personal sacrifice, became one to cherish.
“I spoke to my son as I got selected in the World Cup, and as a striker you need to have that confidence and believe that you’re gonna score in every match,” Duke said.
“I was actually messaging some of my family saying that I was going to score today, and I told my son that I was going to be able to share this moment with him and get that celebration.
“The gesture was a letter J for the first letter of his name. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently he did it back to me from the stadium, which was a really special moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
Duke’s career has not always been smooth sailing. Something of a journeyman, the 31-year-old from western Sydney started his professional career under current Australia manager Graham Arnold at the Central Coast Mariners before spending three years in Japan with Shimizu S-Pulse.
In 2019 he returned to the A-League with the Western Sydney Wanderers before a short-lived stint in Saudi Arabia and loan back to the Wanderers. Last August he returned to Japan with second-tier club Fagiano Okayama, but his wife and two kids, Jaxson and Chloe, live in the UK.
Even in Qatar he has only seen them briefly, during an organised squad trip to the designated family hotel squeezed in between training sessions. The emotion of it all spilled over in his post-match interview.
“There has been a lot of sacrifice for family, being on my own a lot of the time in the last couple years, it hasn’t been easy,” Duke said. “These kinds of moments make those sacrifices worth it, and that’s the mentality you need to have.
“The moment I scored was pure ecstasy. It was just, it was a crazy moment for me, knowing that Craig Goodwin was only the seventh Australian player to scored at a World Cup. I actually said to Arnie a couple days ago that I was going to be the eighth or ninth, so I’m very happy to be the eighth.”
Duke’s international career has been similarly on and off. He made his Socceroos debut in 2013 but spent the next six years in the wilderness, before earning a recall just in time for the start of the team’s qualification journey in 2019.
He has been a regular fixture since, and also went to the Tokyo Olympics with the under-23s as one of the permitted overage players. But his consistent selection has been a source of annoyance for some Socceroos fans who have doubted what he brings to the attack.
After an underwhelming outing against France, the overriding theory was he might be left on the bench for the Tunisia match in favour of Jamie Maclaren or Jason Cummings. However, as Maclaren said afterwards, he more than played his role.
“He’s a hard-working guy who’s probably done it tough moving around clubs, and had some bad luck in Saudi Arabia and stuff,” Maclaren said. “But he’s always found a way to get what he deserves, and tonight he showed that.
“Dukey is a different piece to the puzzle, like myself,” Maclaren said. “He brings that physicality. You saw how he rattled those centre-backs early on and they probably didn’t like that side of the game.
“He really held his own and scored a cracking goal. He really gambled on the mistake and the deflection – it was very instinctual, something that us strikers have. I’m really, really happy for him.”
Arnold, who has selected Duke consistently throughout his tenure, said he has “got a lot of faith in the kid”.
“People talk about where he plays [club football],” Arnold said. “But I always know when he walks over that white line he will give more than 100% for the team, but also for the jersey and the nation.”