High tension, surprise goals and Lego bricks: Socceroos from the grandstands

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An evening of high tension at Al Janoub Stadium in the outer suburbs of Doha paved the way for a dramatic smash-and-grab victory for the Socceroos against Denmark in the final group stage match of Group D.

Mathew Leckie’s second-half strike came out of the blue, sending the travelling Australian supporters wild, and another fantastic defensive display and woeful shooting from the Danes gave Graham Arnold a shot at the Round of 16 on Saturday.

Qatar time typically involves a late morning – after all, the final game of the day finishes at midnight, and by the time the weary traveller battles the transport and gets home to bed it’s often after 2am. Today was no exception, so beers over brunch started the day before heading to Australia’s enclave in Doha, The Hive, to begin the pre-game ritual – five pints for $75, making this the home of the independent Aussie traveller. The pub thinned out as 4pm approached, with everyone understanding the need to be at the stadium well in advance, and the bus, metro and Uber options got most people to Al Wakra in good time ahead of kick-off.

Some high-profile Aussies were spotted before the match around the stadium. Heather Garriock and Ernie Merrick in attendance as part of the FA, and Trent Sainsbury was playing the role of a Socceroos fan and was happy to pose for photos with other fans around him.

The seating arrangements were a little unusual thanks to the errors with the online code system when Australia qualified, so Australians were spread out all around one end of the stadium, and the Danish end even more sparsely populated with red. The Aussies took a leaf out of their Tunisian counterparts and simply bunched up, assembling in one big block, no-one sitting, so there was plenty of room for those who wanted to join the fun. The chant of the day was ‘You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight’. There was some advice offered to the Danes as to where they could stick their Lego pieces, and they were reliably informed that Denmark is ‘just a shit part of Sweden.’

The Aussie fans were happy, songs being sung continuously up until the thunderous national anthem. There was generally a feel-good atmosphere. What could go wrong?

Denmark started the game in spectacular fashion, Australia unable to contain their intricate moves, and Maty Ryan pulled off a fabulous save within ten minutes. He was busy again soon after, fortunate that the ball made it all the way through to him from a low cross from the left, and both fullbacks Milos Degenek and Aziz Behich were stretched. Both keepers were struggling with their kicking accuracy, Kasper Schmeichel launching the ball straight into touch to jeers from the Australian contingent, then Ryan following suit. A half-chance for Riley McGree saw Schmeichel at least make a save, but in reality it was one-way traffic.

When Denmark hit the side-netting to the relief of the fans behind Ryan’s goal, there was a genuine belief that this could be our night. Nothing was going right for Denmark in front of goal, and Harry Souttar was again the man-mountain that we expect him to be. McGree was harshly adjudged to have fouled his man leading to a late free-kick, but again it was wasted, and the players disappeared down the tunnel to applause from the fans.

In Arnie we trust. When Craig Goodwin was hooked at half-time in favour of Keanu Bacchus, we could only trust in Graham Arnold’s judgement. Goodwin had found himself in space at times in the first half but didn’t get the ball. Degenek joined Behich in the book soon into the second half.

Aaron Mooy of Australia celebrates after the1-0 win during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between Australia and Denmark at Al Janoub Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Al Wakrah, Qatar. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

(Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

That’s when news came in of a Tunisia goal against France.

The terrace grapevine didn’t work too well, and there was talk of it being disallowed, then it wasn’t. It was so stressful. But that stress was soon lifted when Australia won the ball in midfield during a period of possession for the Danes. Jackson Irvine played in McGree, who slid a ball into Leckie coming from his own half. If he had the pace, he would be able to get in a one-on-one with the keeper, but instead he ended up in a duel with the last defender and, after twisting right and then left, he shot low between the defender’s legs. The ball rolled beautifully past Schmeichel’s outstretched hand and into the corner of the goal.

To say that this was unexpected would be an understatement. The celebrations were ferocious and prolonged. This was truly unbelievable. The Socceroos had taken the lead out of the blue and now had to manage a third of the game to protect that precious lead.

Behich almost dribbled all the way through to goal on the byline from the left, his cross eventually blocked. There was a VAR shout for a penalty up the other end as Denmark threatened again, but the offside flag saved us. Bacchus teased out a diffusing free kick and a yellow card for his opponent that allowed the Socceroos to refocus. There were still 15 minutes to go and a lot of football to be played.

When Irvine went in with seemingly a studs-up challenge, over the ball with ten minutes remaining, the Australian fans feared the worst, but it didn’t even result in a free kick. Defensive substitutions kept the Socceroos team fresh and Leckie made way for Ajdin Hrustic as the game got to the last few minutes.

Injury time was torture. Bacchus chose not to head to the corner flag and tried to play in fellow sub Jamie Maclaren, and he did the same soon after, showing a little naivety to present the ball back to the Danes. The fans didn’t need to worry though. The final whistle sounded, the arms went up on the bench and the fans behind Schmeichel’s goal jumped for joy. What a moment!

The celebrations were beautiful. The players were hugging, Arnie had the broadest smile on his face, and there was genuine joy on the face of every member of the Socceroos squad. Heading into the media mixed zone, Andreas Christensen was upset, passing up any interviews in English, but there were tears of joy in the Australian media contingent/

McGree let the media pack know that this was a group of players who believed in themselves and who would hopefully inspire a new generation of players in Australia. When asked about his many tattoos, visible in the proper ocker singlet he was sporting, he divulged that the one at the top of his arm was of him going to Goodison Park, such is his love for football. Mitch Duke didn’t know the Tunisia result until the moment he was asked about it, and he said that it hadn’t yet sunk in. He was excited to be going further in the tournament and that it was an opportunity to make history. The players were saying all the right things.

Mat Ryan praised the collective spirit in the squad, the players who came in made a difference, and he let it known that this ambitious group of players was not done yet.

The party was only getting started for the fans though. From the stadium, where celebrations were taking place inside and outside, despite the multitude of international acts playing in Doha to entice, it was back to the pub for a good old sing-song, eventually stumps being pulled at 3am and another epic day at the FIFA World Cup done and dusted.

The frantic scramble to change flights and acquire tickets for the Round of 16 game with Argentina now takes precedence for those fans remaining in Qatar, and judging by the atmosphere at Argentina-Poland in the late game, we’re in for a cauldron-like scene at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Saturday.

Bring it on!

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