In 1997, the band Everclear released ‘So Much For the Afterglow’, a particularly poignant tune in light of a fateful Socceroos night at the MCG, when World Cup qualification was snuffed out in an extraordinary match against Iran.
In 2022, we should be able to all bathe in the afterglow of the incredible achievements of Graham Arnold’s squad, who have delivered excitement and drama to a nation that has gone “fitba crazy” as the Scottish-Aussies in the team might say.
Football’s calendar is so hectic that there is little opportunity to stop and take in a memorable tournament run.
The A-League contingent will be back plying their trade this weekend and I hope that the afterglow translates into an increased interest in the domestic competition.
Those players who matched it with the heavyweights of the football world did not look out of place, and we get to see them up close and personal from this week onwards.
Sure, there won’t be tens of thousands at live sites going nuts as Matthew Leckie slides a shot into the bottom corner of Danish keeper and former Premier League winner Kasper Schmeichel’s net. But it’d be nice if the knock-on effects of this marvellous World Cup run mean that the stands will be well-populated if he manages to do the same thing against Socceroos teammate Andrew Redmayne this Saturday.
It’s staggering what this group have achieved.
Written off towards the end of the qualifying campaign, there were even suggestions that it would be better to not qualify because to do so would only result in embarrassing losses at the tournament, and paper over the myriad issues faced by administrators domestically.
The issues still exist but what the squad achieved illuminates them rather than papers over them.
When Craig Goodwin scored from a Leckie cross inside 15 minutes of the first game against France, there was already reason to believe. Even if that 4-1 loss gave the armchair warriors a chance to nod sagely and say “I told you so” (and that line should never be misappropriated from whence it originated), Arnold never publicly lost his belief in what the team could achieve.
He was right.
I shudder to think what might have happened had Arnold been removed and an interim coach installed for the tournament. There would’ve been no shout-out to the Sackville Hotel in Rozelle for a start. But neither would there have been that connection between team and country, which just grew with each subsequent performance – from the nail-biting win over Tunisia, to the performance against Denmark which, had it been Italy who had won the game in that fashion, would have been lauded as a tactical masterclass (which it was, but the man at the helm’s closest tie to anything Italian is the number of wood-fired pizza restaurants in Balmain).
The nation took this team to heart because they were forged in a recognisable identity, one of spirit, desire and fearlessness. They may not have had the household names of the 2006 ‘Golden Generation’ but there was character by the truckload, and an under-appreciation of the skill the squad brought to Qatar.
It might be a cliche, but this team was greater than the sum of its parts. From the towering defensive presence of Harry Souttar, who played every minute of the tournament despite having only 90 first-team minutes under his belt in the lead-up due to a knee injury, to the perpetual motion Jackson Irvine, the social conscience and piston engine of the midfield, whose passion and emotion was clear for all to see in his post-game interview following the Argentina game.
Then there was the hard-running, harassing and desire of Mitch Duke, whose post-goal celebration sign to his young son Jaxson was captured and sent around the world in a heart-warming example of how this team has family close to its soul.
The nation took the team to heart and it was wonderful to see.
Sporting rivalry was forgotten (save for an embarrassingly timed first-round draw release from another code on the same morning as the Australia-Argentina game) and the World Cup was all the fans wanted to talk about, all they wanted to take in.
Those live site images from Federation Square brought all the passion and fun and desire of this game into people’s living rooms. People were thinking, “I want to be a part of this”, which of course led to the enormous crowds at 6am on a Sunday morning all over the country – just to watch a giant screen and dare to hope that their team could somehow find a way past one of the giants of the football world.
Strangely, the defeat to Argentina did not seem as painful as that loss to Italy in Kaiserslautern in 2006.
It was the manner in which this platinum generation went about putting the fear of god into the Argentinians, storming back after going two goals down, and being within one strong left-arm of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez of taking the game into extra time.
Can you just imagine Garang Kuol’s image on the front of every newspaper and the lead story of every news bulletin had his shot found the back of the net? Yes, it was that close, and just look at the relief and celebration from the Argentinian players when the full-time whistle blew.
No fan here could possibly have been anything but inspired by that.
There’s still a ways to go in this World Cup, but this Socceroos fan is bathing in the afterglow of a tournament little expected to pan out the way it did for our national men’s team.
No more proof is needed that we are a football nation than the support, the crowds, the discussions and passion that have consumed our late spring and early summer.
And the good news is, there’s no need to look far for the next football fix. It’s coming this weekend with the A-Leagues.