Sat 26/11/2022 : Australia show grit, Argentina back on track

When you think of Qatar and the Middle East, the last thing you think of is breakfast beers. But that’s what kick-started this game day for us, the remainder of the slab of Heinekens demolished over a hearty fry-up, giving us the required sustenance to take into this vital Socceroos game day. Our game was the first one of the day, a 1pm kick off down at Al Wakra, and we had to be on our game to get ready and out the door to give ourselves plenty of time to get there.

Our group assembled, as had become the tradition for all the different countries staying at the Seven Pearls complex, down by the security gate, and we were off on the short walk to the metro a good two hours ahead of kick off, the sun reaching its peak. As soon as we were on the platform, the intermingling of fans made for a fun environment, Aussies and Tunisians happy to pose for selfies and it was all smiles.

Once at Al Bidda station for the change from green to red line, a big bank of Socceroos fans joined us on the platform, and that gave the metro journey to the southern end of the line a great atmosphere with plenty of singing and chanting. That jovial atmosphere continued at Al Wakra stadium, the Tunisian fans outnumbering the Socceroos fans by four to one, and the noise was terrific. Their song about marijuana was getting a noteworthy airing, and when one of their fans was quizzed on it, they just said they loved marijuana – quite strange coming from a country where it is highly illegal to possess or consume the drug. The queue for the shuttle buses was manageable, although the sun was hot and there was no respite from it with no shade in this tarmac parking lot. The shuttle ride was good, our bus full of Aussies, and we were at the stadium and walking into the stadium precinct with over an hour still to go before kick off.

The Aussie media were in attendance, the Fanatics fans had congregated by the giant World Cup and brought out their giant Australia shirt, the fans getting loud and the TV cameras lapping up the footage of Socceroos fans in Qatar having a good time. Aus Kit Nerd was giving away merchandise as part of an FA promotion, the fans were happy and smiling, and Australians and Tunisians were enjoying being together. I left the group at that point to make the move around to the media entrance, which I knew was a good walk around the perimeter to the other side of the stadium.

I bumped into Julian, Sydney FC’s staunchest fan in Melbourne, and Tony, a fellow referee in my local league, and the scene was a beautiful mix of colours and happy smiling faces. I was through security quickly and straight through the media centre with only a quick toilet stop. It was quiet at the media centre, the funky breakout area with bean bags and baby-foot table not too tempting in the mid-day sun. The circuitous route to the media entrance was a familiar one, even easier in daylight, and I was up at the media tribune as the players were warming up.

I saw Bec from FA and handed over my desk ticket if anyone wanted to use it, knowing that I was going back down to be with the fans. Bec was quite frank with me, telling me in a roundabout way that giving up a media ticket was tantamount to giving up media accreditation in the future, and that hurt a little. After all, I’d only asked for media accreditation for the Socceroos games because I had no idea what was happening with my media ticket applications with FIFA and no one could advise me, and figured that as an Australian media representative I should add the ‘home’ team’s games to facilitate getting the rest. I always had a fan ticket for the Socceroos group stage games, and that was where I always watched the games, surrounded by fans and able to express emotion and see the action as a fan. I was under the naive impression that handing over my ticket would allow someone who didn’t have a desk to take advantage of the situation and move from a seat to a desk. I guess, as a journalist, I am naive.

Undeterred, I made my way back down to the media entrance and around to the gate, the same one as the France game, and made my way in to find Michelle. There were a lot of Tunisia fans in the bay next to ours, and there were a lot of Tunisia fans around the slither of yellow at the front of the bay to our right of the goal. The fans all clad in red and white were congregating in the bay right behind the goal, and there were clearly more people than seats. We coralled a few Aussies dotted in that bay into ours. Luckily there were no dissenting Karens or over-zealous security staff to prevent us from rescuing our fans from the Tunisia bay. At the far end was the main group of Tunisia fans, and all around the stadium it was mainly red. The noise coming from the far end, bathed in sun, was immense.

This was a do-or-die game. Tunisia had a point to their name already, we had nothing but an unhealthy goal difference, so defeat was unthinkable and a draw wasn’t entirely helpful to our cause. The expectation from the other game was a comfortable France win, so as long as we didn’t lose, we’d be in with a chance of qualification in the last group stage game. It was much the same for Tunisia, and this game would have been earmarked as a game to win. A fascinating scenario then, and one that would give the game an extra edge. This could make game three almost a dead-rubber and we’d be gutted if that was the case.

Australia were playing in their green away shirts and kicked off towards our end. Tunisia showed their intent from a Socceroos corner, the ball played expertly up the other end on the counter attack and it was only a heavy touch by the striker, running on to the cross that saved us from an opening goal. Mitch Duke, always the combative forward who makes his presence known, ended up on the ground after a collision, and there was worry as the physios raced out to treat a back injury. He was up and about soon after though and gingerly took the field again to join the fray.

We were in the 22nd minute when Duke controlled a long ball from the back perfectly into the path of Riley McGree, who in turn swept the ball out left to the galloping Craig Goodwin. He advanced and seemed to have taken too long with the cross and was closed down. He did get his cross in, but it took a wicked deflection into the ground and bounced up perfectly for the lung-busting run by Duke, who twisted his body to loop a header over the Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen and into the net. The shock around the stadium meant there was a slight delay in the celebrations, and we were leaping in the air in disbelief. One second we’d been cursing the time it took Goodwin to cross the ball, the next we were watching the net bulge and Duke racing off to celebrate. What a moment. There is nothing quite like it – we’d had the same experience against France when Goodwin lashed the ball home at the far end – scoring a goal to take a surprise lead is a wonderful feeling. The joyful scenes lasted a long time, and the Tunisia fans defiantly sang in the bay next to us, their bay getting busier and busier.

The remainder of the half was spent holding on to that lead as Tunisia attacked, their goalkeeper getting shouts of ‘Damien’ and being told he was a wanker after winding up the Aussie fans with his colourful pantomime antics and throwing himself to the floor like a toddler having a tantrum when Tunisia passed up some great opportunities. One of those chances, with half time approaching, saw Kye Rowles and Harry Souttar both slide in to thwart a great chance, and then with seconds remaining of the half, Youssef Msakni blasted wide when he should have found the net, meeting a cross from the right perfectly but steering his shot just past the post in front of their fans. Australia posed a threat from a corner, but half-time was a relief, and the players could go in to get some wisdom from Graham Arnold to see what they could do in the second half.

Defend! Defend! Defend, defend, defend!

Half time was a chance to rehydrate, but as usual the queues were phenomenal. The toilets were an impromptu smoking den for the Tunisian fans, and more and more fans were pouring around the stadium to be with their active group behind the goal. No one from security had any interest in stopping them. That made an even better atmosphere at our end, and it felt like we were in an away bay in Tunis, the fans in red relentless in their singing. We tried to keep the songs going, the usual suspects trying their hardest to get the Socceroos fans going, but the usual reluctance to sing and the lack of imaginative chants was to hamper those efforts.

The game was on a knife-edge. Any slip would be punished, any missed chance could be crucial. Australia threatened and Goodwin slotted a ball across goal but there was no one there. Then Jamie Maclaren jinked to the byline and fizzed in a cross for Mathew Leckie to lunge at, but he was a split-second too late and the chance was gone. Mat Ryan made a fine stop going to his right to push away a thumping shot and was fortunate to field two shots that were straight at him. Aaron Mooy was rolling back the years, his raid down the left eating up valuable time as the Socceroos entered game management mode. The crowd of 41,823 was announced, not the worst, but still well shy of capacity.

The turning point of the game came with five minutes remaining. Rowles took a bouncing ball in the face that saw him slip and sent tumbling; that left substitute Taha Khenissi through on goal. There was an air of resignation as we watched him advance on goal, but the huge strides of Souttar saw him reach the Tunisian defender as he shaped to shoot, and the tackle was to perfection, a sensational piece of defending that will be remembered for years to come by every Socceroos fan. There was still time for some rocky moments as Tunisia threatened, but the final whistle sounded and the celebrations started.

The urgency to head to the mixed zone was not there, knowing that it was ages before the players got through to the written media, so I was able to lap up the celebrations, and then left to walk around back to the media entrance and down to the mixed zone. Walking in to the same Aussie journalists who had been so sombre earlier in the week, we now had a different scenario; there were quiet fist-pumps and broad smiles. The expert mixed zone management of Bec led Riley McGree to the pack of Australian media. Paraphrasing his responses, he told of hard work and a commitment to work together, and you couldn’t deny the togetherness of the squad who celebrated everything on the bench. He knew it would be physical, and in this performance that was close to the ‘complete 90 minutes’, he singled out Harry Souttar as a top performer. The team knew the job wasn’t done yet, Martin Boyle’s appearance pre-kick off was a boost and a reason to fight, and when asked if he was experiencing any joy, he said he was still taking it all in.

Craig Goodwin was next, letting the media pack know that they were not here to make up the numbers. They had worked hard at training, and he was happy that his assist would give Federation Square a reason to party. They put in a shift against France and the Denmark game would be tactical, but today was reward for their work. The bench celebrated every 50/50 tackle, and the atmosphere was likened to the cauldron against Peru, which provided the atmosphere to go on and win that one too. Was he feeling the pressure of the World Cup? That was a tricky one, but Goodwin said they all deserved to be at the World Cup and they were there to create special moments. For him personally it was a highlight and he wanted to take Australia further than they ever have been before; every Australia team has been underestimated, and they would fight to the very end to make it through. The game against Denmark would be their focus now and it would be a very different proposition to today.

Jamie Maclaren rounded out the three Australia players summoned to the mixed zone, and he was delighted to be part of history. The squad was a bunch of honest blokes who wanted to do well. He had seen the footage already from Fed Square, but they wouldn’t get carried away after their first World Cup win in 12 years. Maclaren said he would forgive his club teammate for missing the chance to convert his cross in the second half. Harry and Kye were immense at the back. Did he relish the atmosphere? It was like Peru, he said echoing the thoughts of Goodwin.

There was time for one more question for Maclaren, from a non-Australian journalist who was doing a piece on Mitchell Duke. It was a little out of context, but he underlined the fact that Duke was a great bloke, was from a second tier competition yet had scored a winner in a World Cup game.

The winding route of the mixed zone meant I could hop only a couple of metres to get a question in as he strode out, accompanied by Bec. “Do you have a message for the fans after that one?” I asked. He didn’t quite get the gist of the question and Bec had to repeat it, but he reiterated that they weren’t done yet, they’d go again in the final group game and “watch this space” against Denmark. He walked off with a glint in his eye and I had my answer. They were confident. That was a great message for the fans.

That was enough mixed zone for me. I still never found out if the players actually did come back through after getting changed, but I know it would have been a long wait. There was celebrating to be done, and I made my way out, remembering to turn left instead of right out of the media entrance to stay within the stadium perimeter.

The mood at the Fan Festival was of total joy, everyone was keen to take photos and be in them, and the Tunisian fans were happy to go along with it, even though they had just lost a key game. The sun was setting, creating a beautiful scene around Al Janoub Stadium, and the walk back to the shuttle buses saw long shadows and some amazing light for photos. The journey to DECC, on the same mtero line, was fun and we were up in the Hive bar at the Intercontinental Hotel ready to party the night away. One great photo was of all the women who were in Doha supporting the Socceroos, showing that this was not a place to be scared off by the naysayers and harbingers of doom.

Of course, I wouldn’t be there for long. There was more football to watch. The party was just geting into full swing and I had to leave to get to the next game, and as coincidence would have it, that was at Lusail, not that many stops from DECC at the opposite end of the red line from Al Wakra. Would this be the end of Argentina’s World Cup at such an early stage?

Once on the metro, the atmosphere was electric. I’d already taken in loads of post-match celebratory beers, and it was all extra-fun to me. The Argentina fans were jumping up and down and it was a proper party. Once one person sung, they all sung. There didn’t seem to be any Mexicans in my carriage, so it was just a non-stop repertoire of drawly Argentinian classics, mostly involving waving one hand nonchalently in the air. One fan clad in blue and white noticed my shirt – he was an Aussie out with his Argentinian in-laws and was having the time of his life, albeit having a few language barriers along the way. Fair play to him, it would have been quite an intimidating scenario to be in.

The escalator was out at Lusail station, showing that all the money in the world still couldnt guarantee that escalators don’t break down, which caused a bit of a bottleneck, but once in the walkways above, the crowd was noisy and boistrous, fans of both countries trying to out-sing one another.

The now familiar shortcut took a lot of time off the journey, there was no need to go to the media centre other than to empty quite a full bladder, there were no media tickets to print out for tomorrow. The stadium forecourt was absolutely buzzing, and there were queues to get through the gates. When I arrived at the tribune level, I couldn’t believe my luck; I’d been allocated a media desk on halfway, the holy grail of seating positions, and it wasn’t long before some Aussie media colleagues came to join me on the desk to marvel at the view, as Live is Life, the song synonymous with Maradona’s warm-up routine, was played around the stadium.

Lusail Stadium was the ideal venue for tonight’s game – surely a sell-out and probably the most in-demand tickets of the whole tournament to date. The pre-game routine just seemed extra-special, culminating in two national anthems that made the hairs on your neck stand up and your skin bristle with excitement. There were masses of photographers, every seat seemed to be taken, and the area behind the goal to our left for the Argentinian fans, seemed to be doubly packed with people. The countdown to kick off was impeccable and the game kicked off to terrific noise.

Argentina were on the front foot, and an early dive, the player going down as if he’d been shot, signalled that the Albicelestes would be looking to win at all costs today. I must admit that I didn’t take many notes of this game as I was simply absorbed in the whole spectacle. The noise from the crowd on the quarter-hour when a free-kick from Luis Chavez was turned just past the post by Hector Herrera was unbelievable, and every Mexico pass thereafter was given an Olé by the fervent crowd. Mexico wasted an opportunity with a dreadful set-piece routine soon after, and the game was being played at a fierce pace.

Argentina finally got a shot on goal when Lionel Messi played a short corner to Angel Di Maria. His crafty cross was touched over the bar by Lautaro Martinez with the crowd screaming. The best chance of the half though came from another free-kick. A heavy challenge from Gonzalo Montiel earned him a yellow card, and from the resulting free-kick, Alexis Vega’s shot looked good until Emi Martinez leapt through the air to pluck the ball from the corner of the goal. A real Bruce Grobelaar moment. The game was in the balance at half time. Something would have to give in the second half, and it was up to Argentina to take the initiative.

Messi hit a free kick over the bar early in the half, as everyone expected a majestic goal and a crazy celebration in front of the Argentinian fans, and it was Argentina who kept probing, looking for the way through. Just after the hour mark, they got their reward for the constant pressure. It wasn’t even a half-chance. Di Maria cut inside and rolled the ball to Messi in the edge of the ‘D’, who took a touch and smashed a low shot under the legs of the defenders and past the hand of Guillermo Ochoa into the bottom right hand corner for 1-0. It was as if it was scripted, and Messi ran to congratulate with his teammates.

Argentina continued to carve up the Mexico defence, and it wasn’t through hard running or individual brilliance, it was simply persistent possession and intelligent runs. Marcos Acuna slid in a lovely ball to Nahuel Molina in behind the defence, but his wild shot ended up in the fans as a great chance was missed. Messi was convinced that he’d been fouled soon after and ended up sitting down to try and stop play; alas play went on an Mexico almost benefited from the extra man but were quickly closed down to boos from the Argentina fans.

The attendance of 88,966 was officially a complete sell-out, and there was no denying that this was a full stadium.

It was a matter of time before all the knocking at the door got Argentina in again, and so it proved. A short corner by Rodrigo De Paul to Messi, he fed substitute Enzo Fernandez, who took the ball into the box, and after a quick step over, curled a beautiful shot past Ochoa for 2-0. It was no more than Argentina deserved, and again it was from a situation that didn’t even seem like a half-chance; the finishing was simply sublime again, and that was something that Mexico just didn’t have.

The noise at the final whistle was huge. This had been such an important game for Argentina, and failure to put their chances away would have left their World Cup in tatters. The game went the way of the script, a goal for Messi and an important three points, but Mexico can still hold their heads high and they still have a chance of going through, depending on what happens in the final round of group stage games.

The celebrations were immense in the stadium, and they would continue outside, the Argentinians relieved to have got back on a winning trajectory and the Mexico fans just ready to party, win, lose or draw.

The evening had gone so well, and my previously jolly state hadn’t waned, but I was ready for another beer. As seems to be a Qatar trait, food was far from my mind, and after the short ride to DECC metro station, I was back in the Hive bar, playing catch-up with some heavily refreshed Socceroos fans. Michelle had spent the evening controlling the less-sober Australia fans, preventing them from getting into trouble with the authorities, and we were at the pub until we were the last ones there, the bar had closed and the sludge was being mopped from the floor. This had been such a welcoming venue for the Aussies, and we had pretty much claimed it as our own, along with the Welsh fans on their game days.

We caught the relatively short Uber ride home and decided that now, at 3.30am, was time for dinner. Our local takeaway, Food City, was open all hours and was as cheap as chips. There was no problem fuelling up there, and we ate well for next to nothing. This was a late one, and we were in bed well after 4am after another brilliant day of football at the FIFA World Cup.

Catch the match report I submitted the next morning to The Roar, right here.

Matches attended : 13 of 24
Matches missed : France v Denmark, Poland v Saudi Arabia

Next day >>>

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