The 2014 World Cup took its first three victims yesterday. Spain, Cameroon, and Australia will all play another game in. In the wake of one exit, a forest of eulogies has already been written. One of the eliminated teams needs nothing said about them. But Australia deserves some attention.
The Socceroos have lost two matches so far at this World Cup. If you believe FIFA’s rankings (I don’t), Australia entered this tournament as the worst team of 32. In a group with the champions, runners-up, and explosive Chile, they were largely overlooked in the build-up. The almost unanimous expectation of their early exit has quickly proven correct. But sometimes the World Cup is about more than results. Australia’s presence has made this a better tournament.
Against Chile, two quick concessions spelled doom for the Aussies. It would have been easy to try and limit damages from there on out, sitting back and waiting for the final whistle. But Australia took the hard way out. They got back up, and they fought. Tim Cahill’s spring-powered header—no player matches his national mascot quite like Cahill—cut Chile’s lead in half, and what’s more it worried la Roja. Chile, massive favorites, played cautiously from there on out. Australia made a battle out of the remainder of the game, and if not for a (correct) offside flag, Cahill would have had an equalizer. 3-1 was cruel to them.
Against the Netherlands, who had steamrolled Spain, another flattening was expected. Australia didn’t lie down for it. The Dutch were allowed to pass the ball around the back, but as soon as it entered midfield, the Aussies pounced on it. Pressure forced the Dutch to cede possession or go backwards, and largely limited their flying speed from dashing downfield with the ball. Ange Postecoglu deserves credit for his tactics. When Arjen Robben got loose against the run of play, Australia shrugged it off. Less than a minute later, mere seconds after kicking off, Cahill scored the best goal of the tournament so far.
Perhaps the Aussie attitude has been contagious. This has been a World Cup of free-flowing, attacking football, and the few teams that have sat back have been punished for their cowardice. It takes brass to line up against the Netherlands and try to outscore them, but Australia has provided bravery in abundance. More than being courageous, the Socceroos have been fun to watch.They have lost two matches, but they have gained a lot more. I look forward to seeing the 2018 version of this young team in Russia.