The old and the new behind Australia’s surprising shot at World Cup 2022 glory with best run in 16 years

The old and the new behind Australia’s surprising shot at World Cup 2022 glory with best run in 16 years

Australia coach Graham Arnold described his squad as “boxing kangaroos” before the World Cup, but few expected they would make the knockouts in Qatar.

The Socceroos secured a place at tournament after a gruelling qualifying campaign which consisted of 20 games over the space of 1,008 days. Then drawn in a tough group with Denmark, France and Tunisia, they were tipped to be on one of the first planes home.

Against the odds though, Australia finished second in Group D behind 2018 winners France to set up a last-16 clash against Lionel Messi’s Argentina today.

It has so far been a record-breaking World Cup for the Socceroos. Six points is their highest ever group-stage tally and they kept back-to-back clean sheets at a World Cup for the first time in 1-0 wins over Tunisia and Denmark.

They have also reached the last-16 for the only the second time. Comparisons are naturally being made to only other Australia team to achieve that feat, the 2006 side which included Premier League stars like Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Mark Schwarzer.

Arnold has spoken this week about “a new golden generation” but this team is very different to the one 16 years ago and has few household names.

None of the Australia 11 who started Wednesday’s decisive win over Denmark play in Europe’s top five leagues. Instead the heroes are players like Stoke City centre-back Harry Souttar, who is starring a year after a serious knee injury.

There is still a 2006 theme to this team though, not least in the fact that Arnold was Guus Hiddink’s assistant for that tournament. Arnold still speaks to Hiddink regularly and the Dutch coach attended friendlies in September to give him some advice.

Millwall legend Cahill remains a presence as well and is with the squad in Qatar as their head of delegation. Players go to him for advice, he is a popular figure and gave a rousing speech ahead of Australia’s intercontinental play-off win against Peru in June.

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar | Best Images and Moments

Japan’s Kaoru Mitoma appears to have the ball over the line before crossing it for a goal during the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Spain, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar (AP)
Japan’s Kaoru Mitoma appears to have the ball over the line before crossing it for a goal during the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Spain, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar (AP)
Germany players stand dejected at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E campaign and match v Costa Rica (AFP via Getty Images)
Germany players stand dejected at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group E campaign and match v Costa Rica (AFP via Getty Images)
England’s Marcus Rashford scores their first goal from a free kick past Wales’ Danny (REUTERS)
England’s Marcus Rashford scores their first goal from a free kick past Wales’ Danny (REUTERS)
A pitch invader runs across the field with a rainbow flag during the World Cup group H match between Portugal and Uruguay, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail (AP)
A pitch invader runs across the field with a rainbow flag during the World Cup group H match between Portugal and Uruguay, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail (AP)
Ismaila Sarr of Senegal celebrates after their sides victory during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between Ecuador and Senegal at Khalifa International Stadium (Getty Images)
Ismaila Sarr of Senegal celebrates after their sides victory during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between Ecuador and Senegal at Khalifa International Stadium (Getty Images)
USA’s forward #10 Christian Pulisic scores his team’s first goal past Iran’s goalkeeper #01 Alireza Beiranvand during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and USA at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
USA’s forward #10 Christian Pulisic scores his team’s first goal past Iran’s goalkeeper #01 Alireza Beiranvand during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and USA at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, left, scores the second goal past Serbia’s goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic during the World Cup group G soccer match between Cameroon and Serbia, at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar (AP)
Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, left, scores the second goal past Serbia’s goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic during the World Cup group G soccer match between Cameroon and Serbia, at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar (AP)
Brazil’s midfielder #05 Casemiro celebrates with teammates after he scored his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group G match v Switzerland at Stadium 974 in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
Brazil’s midfielder #05 Casemiro celebrates with teammates after he scored his team’s first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group G match v Switzerland at Stadium 974 in Doha (AFP via Getty Images)
England’s Harry Kane reacts after missing a chance to score v USA (REUTERS)
England’s Harry Kane reacts after missing a chance to score v USA (REUTERS)
France’s Kylian Mbappe scores their second goal v Denmark (REUTERS)
France’s Kylian Mbappe scores their second goal v Denmark (REUTERS)
Fans from Japan wait for the start of the World Cup group E soccer match v Germany at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, (AP)
Fans from Japan wait for the start of the World Cup group E soccer match v Germany at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, (AP)

The Socceroos won that match on penalties, bringing an end to an exhausting qualifying campaign which was heavily impacted by Covid. After Australia imposed some of the strictest Covid restrictions, the team played 16 of their 20 qualification games away.

“We did it the hard way, we did it the long way,” says winger Craig Goodwin. “We have a great togetherness amongst the players and the staff. And it’s something that I think is very unique, and very Australian, to be honest.”

Unity is a key strength of this Australia squad, summed up by the fact injured striker Martin Boyle has stayed with the team after he discovered an anterior cruciate ligament tear just days before the tournament.

At full-time against Denmark, Boyle joined in the celebrations on crutches and goalscorer Mathew Leckie was later pushing him around the team base on a wheelchair.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

“My job is keeping the spirits up,” says Boyle. “To be fair, most of them can be a bit miserable! I think that’s why they’ve kept me around.”

The challenge for Australia now is finding a way to keep Messi and Argentina quiet. That is is not an easy task but the Socceroos are returning to the same stadium where they beat Peru to secure qualification, so have good memories.

“The lads have got some good memories from that stadium,” says Souttar. “It’s going to be another great occasion - and I just can’t wait for it.”

Victory over Denmark on Wednesday prompted wild celebrations in Australia, as fans stayed up to the middle of the morning to watch and then celebrate a famous win.

Argentina promises to be another sleepless night Down Under.