The Socceroos have confirmed their status as Australia’s favourite team – and Tim Cahill as the nation’s Bradman in boots – with a pulsating, but ultimately fruitless, 3-2 loss to the Netherlands.
For a brief moment, Ange Postecoglou’s side had the keys to wonderland when national skipper Mile Jedinak blasted a second half penalty, giving Australia a 2-1 lead.
But it was not to be and, with defending champion Spain’s shock 2-0 loss to Chile later in the day, Australia’s exit after the group stage was confirmed.
From the start, the Socceroos belied their lowly ranking and looked comfortable against the Dutch, who, coming off their 5-1 win over Spain, looked like they were sleep-walking through the early stages of the match. The Australians had a host of early chances.
The game really came to life in the 20th minute when Arjen Robben beat his marker, turned Alex Wilkinson inside out, and was one-on-one with Mathew Ryan. The Australian ‘keeper didn’t stand a chance. 1-0 to the Netherthlands.
Then the moment they will talk about for a generation. Within a minute, Tim Cahill, on the receiving end of a long ball on the left, hit his volley flush and it was only ever going in one direction. His sublime strike made it 1-1.
The pandemonium it unleashed in the stadium, and in lounge rooms in the wee hours across Australia, was testimony to his status as our greatest ever Socceroo. Cahill has now scored five goals in World Cup finals matches, more than twice as many as any other Australian.
He explained afterwards why he took the shot instead of trying to control the ball. “If you want to have a shot at the title, you’ve got to have a go at those,” he said. “It just felt so right to hit it, and I hit it sweetly.”
From then on, the Socceroos were like a maiden prize fighter who didn’t know what danger they were in, constantly stepping up and challenging the Dutch in midfield and winning the ball.
The orange sea of Dutch fans sat in Porto Alegre’s Beira-Rio stadium with long faces, like council workers in high viz vests taking a smoko.
At half time, the Socceroos would have been told by Postecoglou that the game was there for the winning.
Certainly the Dutch felt the pressure and it showed in the second half.
Playing at a higher tempo, they tried to get Robben in behind the Australian defence at every occasion, while Sneijder was also finding his range, driving a ball that Ryan had to tip around the corner.
Then the moment when the unthinkable loomed. Oliver Bozanic came on for a tiring Mark Bresciano and changed the course of the match, winning a hand ball penalty for the Australians, which Jedinak buried into the back of the net. 2-1 to Australia.
But the Dutch responded again. Robin van Persie, who was having trouble finding the space he normally likes to work in, had a brief opportunity and he wasn’t going to waste it, putting the ball past Ryan. 2-2.
The third Dutch goal was a moment that Ryan would like to get back, a long range shot from Memphis Depay that he should have parried around the corner, but managed only to deflect into the back of the net.
The natural order was restored.
The Australians kept coming. Mathew Leckie had the best chance to equalise again when the ball was fired in from the left hand side towards the back post but, from about six yards, all he could do was chest the ball into hands of relieved Dutch ‘keeper Jesper Cillessen.
Postecoglou said the result was “bitterly disappointing” for his players, saying both second half goals were “preventable”. But he was immensely proud.
“They were magnificent. They took it to a world class team. It’s easy for me to talk about self-belief, but they are the ones who have got to do it, and full credit to them. But I just feel bitterly disappointed that they weren’t able to get some reward out of it.”
This was a significant day in so many ways. Cahill received his second yellow card for the tournament, which means he will miss the third group match, against Spain, so this may have been his last outing for the Socceroos. When he and Bresciano left the pitch, that was the last remnants of the Golden Generation of 2006.
This is now a team predominantly manufactured in Australia in the A-League. They showed that they are more than good enough to play the way we would like to see from Australian teams: with sufficient flair, work ethic and fearlessness to take on the rest of the world.