There was no way that our first, and probably only, meal of the day was going to be labelled as a breakfast. No one was surfacing at any time that resembled breakfast time, and rightly so after another night that extended into the early hours. This was it, the final game of our World Cup adventure, and I was now purely a fan; I had applied successfully for media access to today’s game and the following day’s England v Senegal clash before we had our flights confirmed, but cancelled them both – I was still bunged up and needing paracetamol to function during the day and I couldn’t see myself being much use in the mixed zone, especially given the amount of beer that was in the fridge waiting to be consumed. It was an easy decision to simply be a fan today and enjoy the day for what it was – an unbelievable opportunity to make history and go further in the World Cup than the Socceroos had ever been. Saudi Arabia had already beaten Argentina, so it could be done.
I was up and about before everyone, and decided that I would use the time wisely and head back to Souq Waqif for a quick visit in order to stock up on presents. I had a fistful of Qatari Riyals to use up – most transactions had been done by card during our stay in Doha, but cash was always handy to have. I was determined to leave with none though, and I had a good idea what I wanted. A Qatar shirt, a France training top, sunglasses and other bits and pieces, and that would go well with the goodie bag from the opening ceremony to make good gifts for the kids when I got home.
The souq was bustling when I got there, and the TV cameras were already in action, filming segments for the rolling TV coverage of the World Cup around the globe. The day was perfect, not too hot, clear skies, and a feeling of magic in the air ahead of an incredible spectacle this evening in the 10pm kick off.
I got everything I came for and headed back to the Seven Pearls to see who was up and about. It was coming up to 2pm and time for ‘breakfast’, and we got busy using up the last of the food and frying up a glorious heart-starter, along with the now traditional vodka Irn Bru and a chaser of Heineken. This was something we’d only done late at night before bed – we would be regularly up til 3 or 4am winding down after a day of football, watching the replays of the games to stay current, but this was day time, and there were extra people in the apartment and it was great. The beers flowed until we’d cleared out the fridge, and luckily Mel had a stash of warm extra-strength beers that were welcome to keep the session going.
There was only one place where any self-respecting independent Socceroos traveller would be for this one, and that was back at the Hotel Intercontinental on the first floor at the Hive Bar. The TV cameras were there, the Netherlands v USA game was showing, it was the perfect scene for a pre-game. And we were three sheets to the wind already with a five-pint salvo to come.
The party atmosphere grew as the beers flowed, but in the back of my mind I had that dreaded redirected walk to the faraway gate at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium nagging at me, to the point that we made the call to leave early to head to the game. Michelle would join us later, her mother hen instinct not allowing herself to leave before everyone in the pub knew that they had to leave too. Plus there were plenty more beers to drink. It was quite a wrench to leave a banging atmosphere with everyone in a hedonistic mood, but being late to this game was not an option.
We grabbed an Uber and headed out on the dead straight road past our metro stop and out to the stadium. I had been throwing the beers back like I was half my age and was feeling absolutely amazing, on top of the world, and full of joie de vivre, despite still being under the weather, lacking in sleep and undernourished.
Arriving at the stadium, or as near as we could get in the Uber, this was clearly an ‘us and them’ scenario – the yellow shirts of the Australians and the blue and white stripes of every single other fan. You were either Socceroos or Argentina, there was no neutral. Getting through the stadium security took a long time, but was good fun, plenty of singing and light-hearted self-deprecating banter from the Socceroos fans about how we were going to win the World Cup. Inside the stadium precinct, it was all Argentina and every fan in a Socceroos shirt would greet each other and comment on how outnumbered we were.
I found Michelle and we were in the stadium in good time and the warm-ups were still happening. The scene was set and the stadium was filling up fast, most Aussie fans already in place and the chants were up and running. We found roughly where our seats were, but most people were just standing where they wanted, only a few of the more regular Category A fans huffing and puffing about not being in their actual seats. We had come to expect that over the years – echoes of Townsville early in the year when the Matildas active had some mums complaining about not having their allocated seats; they ended up singing along with the chants and having a great time instead of stewing over their allocated seats in a half-empty section.
There was a bit of a battle over flag space; the Socceroos fans had to relocate a few Argentina flags that had made their way into the Australia section – Argentina had the whole of the rest of the stadium, surely they could afford us a few metres of flag exposure. There was tension.
The rest of the stadium was a sea of blue and white, and at the far end, there were more people than seats, the front section looking suspiciously busy. The noise was terrific, there was a special something in the air, a feeling that we were at a historical moment and the national anthems were something to behold. We knew that this was our last game of the World Cup, even if we got a result today, so it had extra special meaning, and was like a closing chapter. My eyes were well and truly welled up after singing Advance Australia Fair.
This was Lionel Messi’s 1000th game of his career. We weren’t aware of that until someone mentioned it just before the game; there was a script to be followed then, and it would surely involve a goal and a celebration. The Socceroos matched it with Argentina in the early stages of the game, Jackson Irvine went in the book for an agricultural challenge on Marcos Acuna and there was an early VAR scare as Keanu Bacchus may have accidentally handballed in the area with no one around him. Australia even forced a corner up the far end, and Harry Souttar got above his man to connect with Riley McGree’s cross, but the ball was hacked clear.
Some late-comers came in and claimed their seats right next to us, clearly some last minute ticket sales to locals, and one of them promptly fell asleep in his seat. What was the point of being there, and their mere presence was painful as they insisted on sitting down when everyone else was standing.
The moment every neutral fan was waiting for arrived. Aziz Behich was harshly adjudged to have brought down his man on the left side of defence and once he’d peeled himself off the ground, Messi lifted in the cross. Souttar won the header easily, but Argentina picked up the rebound, and some neat play saw Alexis McAllister feed the ball back into the box where Messi had drifted back inside, a bit like a futsal move, and he fired in a left foot shot through the mass of legs and around Mat Ryan for the opening goal, a terrific finish and a goal worthy of the thousandth goal of his career.
We could only stand and admire. Australia worked hard until half-time, but all the while it felt as though Argentina were holding back waiting for the moment to really turn on the style. Milos Degenek went into the book for a foul on Acuna, who then returned fire in the next sequence but didn’t go in the book. Half-time was upon us; I went to see if I could face the queue to get drinks and food, but as usual it was slow-moving and I ended up coming back empty handed from my bathroom break.
The second half was ten minutes old and Argentina had been in complete control; Messi had a shot that was easily fielded by Mat Ryan, and Australia looked to play the ball out. Ryan threw the ball out to Behich out wide who fed the ball back to Kye Rowles. A routine back pass with players closing in should have been a routine boot upfield, but Ryan was caught in two minds and tried to play the ball out of trouble. He was hopelessly caught out by the two Argentinian players who were on him like a pack of hyenas, and Julian Alvarez swivelled 360 degrees to roll the ball into the unguarded net as the Socceroos goalkeeper realised what he’d done. It was an awful moment, and our heads were bowed as we contemplated the end of the journey unfolding at the other end of the stadium, the Argentinian fans rejoicing in their good fortune. At 2-0 down, this could end up like the France game, but if we could get one back quickly, there would still be a game on.
Craig Goodwin and Ajden Hrustic came on with attack the only option. Emilio Martinez in the Argentina goal hadn’t faced a shot in the second half, but Goodwin’s deliveries were starting to keep him a little busier. Garang Kuol was introduced in a sweeping three-man substitution that was the Socceroos’ last chance. It was all out attack now, and unbelievably the football gods were smiling on us as Behich’s cross was headed away and Goodwin lined up a piledriver from way outside the box. We were right behind the shot and it took a massive deflection, sending it completely off course, and instead of finding row Z, the ball skidded past the stranded Martinez and into the corner of the net for a freak goal. Australia were back in it! We were so shocked, there was only muted celebration; the goal had come from nowhere. Could this be the turning point?
Argentina were clearly worried now. Manager Lionel Scaloni was pacing his technical area looking for inspiration, and made two substitutions of his own to try and close the game out. But this was an incredibly open game now; Australia had a sniff and were following the scent. With ten minutes remaining, Behich picked up a ball in midfield, surrounded by players. He powered past one, went in between two defenders and found himself in the box. A shoulder dip and jink to the right and he had the goal in sight, but the time it took him to raise his boot for the shot, Lisandro Martinez slid in to block the shot. Again, this was happening right in front of us, and the collective intake of breath as Behich got onto his right foot had hands on shoulders and knees bent ready to celebrate the most amazing goal. It was Messi like, although Messi would have simply poked it with his left foot with the tackle looming and he would have probably scored. What a moment though, it was almost the fairytale for Behich juxtaposed against his low point in Japan in qualifying. The Argentina defenders were celebrating like they’d scored a goal.
There were ten miinutes to go plus plenty of additional time likely after a raft of subs. The crowd was announced and was a total sell-out at 45,032, the same number as the official capacity. This was taking the same shape as the Uruguay game only just yesterday, and both teams were on the attack. Argentina could and should have scored at least two goals in this time, Lautaro Martinez having his shot blocked by Ryan and the follow up put wide, and then a wrong-footed Ryan saved a Messi chance that you would have put your house on him scoring. Time was almost up, Argentina had the chances to put the game to bed. And then it all came down to the last chance of the game. It fell to Australia.
Goodwin lifted the ball in for Souttar, who was playing now as a centre-forward. It was too high for him, but fell for Kuol. He peeled off his man with the ball at his feet and had to dig out a shot from an acute angle. Martinez had come out to spread himself wide, and managed to get something on the ball before dropping on the ball in relief, his defenders all dropping to their knees in relief. We were in a frenzy behind the goal, it was almost heart-attack inducing, and we knew that was the moment when it all ended. The whistle sounded almost immediately after. What an end to a match!
The players had already accepted their fate and the Argentina players were keen to congratulate the Socceroos for such a good effort. Our players came up to our end and applauded, but it was quite a brief goodbye, the team walking down the tunnel quickly, leaving Awer Mabil and Garang Kuol arm in arm soaking up the Argentina pressure, no doubt pinching themselves at what they had just witnessed.
The immediate feeling amongst the Australia fans was despair. That turned to anger as the Argentina fans tried to take over our area; they were anything but subtle the Argentina fans, and they were too quick to come and ask for shirt swaps, we needed a few moments to grieve. There were tense moments and the Argentina fans were told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t welcome in the Socceroos area.
But the Argentinians came in their waves, like the mouse plague, and once our section was diluted, the smiles returned and everyone was ready to get on with the celebrations, despite the scoreline. There was no way I was swapping my prized Jackson Irvine number 22 shirt for a tatty old Messi shirt that I could have bought in the souq earlier that day.
It was time to leave the stadium, and our plan was to catch the shuttle bus back to West Bay, a short walk from the Intercontinental. A big group of us from Seven Pearls was there, and we embarked on the long walk from the stadium to the shuttle buses, past the tradesman’s entrance of the Mall of Qatar and the faraway security gate and out into the night. The journey back was lively. There was talk of the future, of the World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2026, and we were back on other football topics such as the A-League and our local scene, topics that had been off the agenda recently. It was cathartic, and we made our way to the Hive bar for one last time as a last goodbye.
The crowd was quite mixed in there, less Socceroos fans, different shirts of different countries’ fans, but the manager of the bar made a speech thanking the Australian fans for making the Hive their home base. It was a lovely moment and he got a massive cheer from the remaining Socceroos fans.
We made our way back to the Seven Pearls via our favourite takeaway joint, where we ordered our last supper and took it back to the apartment to eat with our flatmates. The World Cup was really over now. It was 4am, we were bleary eyed, emotional and physically spent. But we were happy and proud to be Australian and the footage on TV showed just how close we had come to snatching something out of a game that should have been out of sight.
What a day; what a spectacle; what drama, what excitement, adrenaline levels had been up and down so much through two hours at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium that bed was a very easy option.
Check out the match report from this amazing game that I submitted to the Roar from a hotel bedroom in Singapore right here.