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Australia’s Garang Kuol says he lived a dream when becoming the youngest footballer since Pele to feature in a World Cup knockout game.
Kuol, aged 18 and 79 days, crossed paths with Argentina legend Lionel Messi during the Socceroos’ 2-1 loss in Doha.
“Going one-on-one with Messi for a bit – unreal, I could say a dream,” he told reporters.
Kuol is the youngest to play a knockout fixture at the tournament since a 17-year-old Pele in 1958 and he adds Messi to a list including France star Kylian Mbappe that he has tangled with during his debut World Cup.
“Just their level of confidence and ability,” he said. “I try and mirror their game.”
Kuol, who in January will transfer from Central Coast Mariners in the A-League Men to Newcastle in the English Premier League, believes it will not be long before the Socceroos challenge football’s world superpowers.
“The sport in Australia keeps growing and keeps producing better and better players as time goes by,” he said. “In the future you will see a team that is at the same level as Argentina, Brazil and all those teams.”
Kuol’s teammate, Keanu Baccus said it was surreal to not only rub shoulders with Lionel Messi, but bash them.
Baccus, a 24-year-old who arrived in Qatar with just one Socceroos cap to his name, spent much of the opening half of the World Cup knockout game locking horns with Argentina’s captain.
And just seven minutes in, he laid a shoulder-to-shoulder bump on Messi which floored the global megastar.
Baccus also did what few players have managed during Messi’s 1000 professional games: steal possession from a man renowned as an all-time great.
“Definitely surreal how things work out,” Baccus told reporters. “It was a great experience for me, I definitely know we can go toe-to-toe with these guys.”
Baccus, who moved from A-Leaguers Western Sydney to Scotland’s St Mirren this year, said he was not assigned a marking role on Messi.
“It was just how the game went,” he said. “He was always in that pocket where I was, and being close I pinched it a few times which was good. But he’s a great player and got one in the end and that is credit to his quality.”
Messi scored in the 35th minute in Argentina’s 2-1 victory in the round of 16 fixture, a result which ended Australia’s World Cup campaign.
The South Africa-born Baccus featured in all three games in Doha, coming from the bench twice before being entrusted with a starting midfield role against Argentina.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that playing against the best in the world you can do well,” he said, adding he felt no pre-game nerves.
“It’s football, I have been playing football since I was four or five and have always loved it. I just go out there and do what I have been doing, love the game … have fun, enjoy it.”