It is instructive that six weeks ago, when Ajdin Hrustic injured his ankle playing for his club in Italy, Australia’s World Cup aspirations seemingly suffered a significant setback. Out with the 26-year-old’s damaged ligament went the team’s attacking x-factor, the main man who could be relied upon to create against tough group opposition.
The fact that the Socceroos are already on the verge of the round of 16 and did it all without him (and injured winger Martin Boyle), says a lot about the squad’s output in Qatar in comparison to the expectations. But that does not mean Hrustic cannot still have a substantial say against Denmark on Wednesday night (Thursday 2am AEDT).
The versatile left-footer did not feature at all in Australia’s opening loss to France, but was given a cameo off the bench against Tunisia. The question now is whether coach Graham Arnold deems him fit to start in a match that will decide his side’s fate.
“Ajdin, you saw that he came on the last 15-20 minutes [against Tunisia], so he is in consideration,” Arnold said on Tuesday. “But this will probably be the first time in four years I won’t name the starting line-up tonight, because we need that extra bit of time to see how the boys pulled up after the game.”
Hrustic injured his knee in mid-October playing for his Serie A club Hellas Verona against AC Milan, and initially jumped to the worst possible conclusions.
“When it first happened, I actually tore the grass up with my hands,” Hrustic said this week. “And then I was going ‘please, please no’. I thought it was going to be worse than what it was, and thank god it wasn’t.
“It took me a week for it to calm down a bit, and then I just started hitting the gym and doing my exercises and, getting my heart pumping just so I didn’t lose fitness.”
The aim was to get on the plane to Doha, and with that came some intense rehab. After two and a half weeks of gym work he was able to start running in the pool. Then he got onto a pitch.
Arnold saw enough to select him, in the knowledge that his training load would be lighter but he had access to world-renowned orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital, Aspetar, which is right next door to the Aspire Academy where they train and stay.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to be ready for this World Cup,” Hrustic said. “That all made me realise how much I love football. You realise how special football, and a tournament like this, is. It has been difficult, but this has made me stronger.
“I was happy to get through half an hour against Tunisia with no injuries, thank god, and I feel good.”
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Hrustic has been in and around the Socceroos since the Ange Postecoglou era. But he really made a name for himself in a 2021 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait, scoring a terrific free-kick and named man of the match. At the time Arnold said he would “be one of the stars of the future”.
In 2022, with Eintracht Frankfurt, he became the first Australian player to win a Europa League and later that year sealed a move to Italy’s top flight. But his time at Frankfurt may have offered some crucial intel on Danish midfielder and former teammate, Jesper Lindstrøm.
“He’s a great player and a very good kid,” Hrustic said. “He became a good friend of mine and we actually spoke the other day and I wished him all the best. I’m happy for him because he’s a very humble person.”