Wed 30/11/2022 : Danish delight for Socceroos and Argentina do enough

By the time we had got out of bed, got showered and ready and got our hearty breakfast of faken (that’s fake bacon) and eggs on the stove, it was already afternoon. We had been tucking into the Heinekens and the vodka and Irn Bru was flowing. We met down at the entrance to the complex with a few others and decided that an Uber would be the easiest way to get where we were going, the Hive for a change, a $5 charge to get us there in 20 minutes as opposed to a 50 minute metro ride and walk. We were aiming to be at the Hive soon after the advertised 1pm meet, but it was already after 2pm, so we were running fashionably late, albeit with no agenda whatsoever other than mingling with like-minded independent travellers and getting tanked on beer. Proper pregame.

Australia v Denmark kicked off at 6pm back at the Socceroos home of Al Janoub Stadium, so timing would be important. For now though, it was time to soak up the atmosphere. The crowd grew steadily, the five-drink voucher system getting well and truly used, and by the time we were entertaining heading off to Al Wakra, the Aussie tunes had the whole pub singing and the party atmosphere was in full swing. Fair play to the venue for putting up with us Aussies!

The differing agendas of Michelle and myself meant that we would be heading to Al Janoub at different times. Michelle was ultimately the organiser of the Hive sessions and felt compelled to be there to make sure everyone had a good time without overstepping the mark. That was quite a task, especially later in the evening. But she wanted to be there now to make sure that everyone got to the game, no one was left behind or left it too late to get to the game. On the other hand, I wanted to be there early, make sure I was there well in advance to capture some of the atmosphere outside the stadium, and I jumped in an Uber with fellow Meadowbank Ultra Professor Mark and his brother Malcolm.

An amusing part of the TV coverage for the World Cup was a whole dedicated channel that followed the team buses. The Socceroos team bus journey was shown on the big screen of the pub, but it would have been better following our Uber. Not long into the ride we had a man down, a delivery rider on his motorbike clipped and sent crashing to the tarmac in front of us. Thankfully we stopped in time and the dazed rider was helped up by a passing motorist who stopped as the flying cars all screeched to a halt behind us. Luckily the rider seemed uninjured and his bike looked in good nick, so we were on our way moments later, southbound and heading out of the built up areas into the great void.

Mark had left his phone in the Uber and we called him back to retrieve it. I left to take some photos and find a toilet, the five pints weighing heavily. That was when I realised that I had no idea where the toilets were, and I had visions of crossing my legs while going through the security gate to find one. Luckily there was a set of bathroom portakabins a good five minute walk away and I made my way through the crowds and into the sectioned off area. I have to admit, the lack of a urinal caught me out as I walked into the gents bathroom that only had cubicles, and each one was being used, so I quickly dashed to the next one and thankfully there was one free. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to take a leak.

That left me thinking about how different this would be with alcohol readily available. We would need five times the amount of toilet facilities, otherwise with the distances walked and travelled on shuttle buses and trains, we would have a lot of people using the street as a toilet. Having no alcohol was possibly one of the best innovations of this World Cup and fair play to the Qataris for making that call, however controversial. My eyes still watering, it was time to get back to the party and see what was going on around the stadium.

There were a lot of people arriving from the shuttle buses, although not too many fans of either Australia or Denmark, and the entertainment was pumping and the atmosphere was starting to grow. I made my way around the outside of the stadium precinct to get to the media gate, and lo and behold I bumped into football royalty in former Matildas star and current FA director Heather Garriock. Heather helped me with my book Anna Black – This Girl Can Play and we’ve been at events together since, so it was lovely seeing her in a totally different context and by surprise too. Going past the hospitality entrance there were other Football Australia dignitaries, Mark Falvo, Spiro Pappas, even Ernie Merrick. There must have been quite the delegation of the FA’s top people at the game today.

The media security gate was almost deserted, so passage was very quick, and after negotiating the path from media centre through the stadium forecourt and to the media entrance, I took the stairs up to the tribune level. With perfect timing, Bec from the FA came down the corridor at the same time and I handed over my media desk ticket; hopefully it would be of some use, but who knows? I turned straight around and headed back down and walked around the stadium to find the correct spectator entrance that was almost 360 degrees from the media entrance door.

The stadium was filling up. I found our seats, which were in the corner next to the posh seats on the media tribune side, and left my bag and took my camera to take photos of the fans who were in the stadium already. Michelle arrived, with some much-needed food and drink, and we took in the pre-game from our allotted seats. These weren’t with the bulk of the Socceroos fans, and I can only attribute that to the mix-up with codes that happened at the time of buying the tickets, when I was given only one code for the three Socceroos games when I needed three different ones. Luckily I had still been able to buy tickets to the Tunisia and Denmark games after waiting those eight hours online, but they were not in the supporters bay.

I’d never been in the corner where the inflatable World Cup came out, so this was exciting, and I was surprised to see it deflated to fit through the tunnel. Of course that would have happened for every game, but it was usually out of sight by then. This was right in front of me, and I was hoping that it wasn’t an allegory to Australia’s World Cup hopes tonight.

Once we had sung the national anthem and the field was being cleared, we made the decision to move over to where the rest of the Socceroos fans were situated, to the left of the goal. This was the Tunisian fans’ trick, and we were going to do the same. We made sure no one was checking tickets and found our way to the edge of the group, where all the familiar faces from the Hive were standing, and slipped into the mass. No one was sitting down, there were no dissenters to an extra couple of bodies, this was where we should have been in the first place and it felt like a proper active bay.

“You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight!” rang around the stadium. “You’re just a shit part of Sweden” then followed, and we had the unforgettable “You can stick your lego pieces up your arse.” It was crude, but it showed that Australian football fans had moved on from Olé Olé Olé Olé and there was a bit more substance these days, culminating in the new “We’ve got super Graham Arnold…” that everyone was now on board with after it was aired at the pub.

The game kicked off, and Denmark were shooting towards our end. The Danes had a good bank of supporters, a red mass in the corner where we had been for the previous two games, but it felt like we had more. The posh seats on the side, no doubt the category 1 tickets, at the corner where we had left our actual seats, were pretty full of Aussies, so there were two banks of Socceroos fans.

The first few moments of the game saw the teams feel each other out, Riley McGree having a go early, but the worrying sight of Aziz Behich receiving a yellow card before the 5 minute mark meant that he might be walking a tightrope for the rest of the game. Denmark were in control thereafter, and despite all their possession and probing, they never really upped the gear and looked like they really wanted to score. Brentford’s Mathias Jensen tested Mat Ryan, who punched away at the near post for a corner, Andreas Skov Olsen had a shot but he was falling over as he did and the ball went harmlessly over, and danger man Christian Eriksen hung up a freekick for Barcelona’s Andreas Christensen to head into the side netting.

We were thoroughly expecting a goal to come from all this pressure. Joakim Maehle found himself up from the back on the overlap to race onto a through ball, and a first time ball in would have seen Eriksen well placed to score. Instead, he took the ball to the byline and crossed. A deflection off Harry Souttar took the ball in to Ryan’s feet, and his instant reaction was to swipe at it with his legs. Thankfully he did, and a combination of both feet got the ball away to safety with a number of Denmark players in attendance ready to turn the ball home.

Australia had very little of the ball, but McGree managed to at least get one on target from a tidy Mitch Duke flick, Kasper Schmeichel untroubled, and Denmark continued to have the lion’s share of the ball. Duke had a speculator before he spread the ball wide for Craig Goodwin, and his low cross was perfect had Duke continued his run into the box. The half time whistle was met with tentative relief, the other game in the group still level, which would get Australia through.

There was no heading for drinks or food, we were all just so happy to have got to half time intact after being completely under seige, and I had the camera out to capture more fan photos. Take a look here if you can see yourself! Everyone was in a good mood, but we were nervously looking forward to the second half.

The Socceroos came out with their tails up, and Aziz Behich of all people got in a shot, before Jackson Irvine skied one over the bar when well placed. They were attacking the end where we were, and the fans needed no invitation to give Schmeichel stick every time he touched the ball. This was better from our boys, but when Denmark made two attacking subs, we were worried. News came in of a Tunisia goal, but then it was offside, then it wasn’t. It didn’t matter if we could hold on here, but we were still worried. But we needn’t have been that worried, what happened next will stick in the memory forever. Denmark were on the attack and in a good position until they were a bit too fancy and Australia cleaned up, Duke tracked back to control and the ball was sprayed out to McGree on the counter up the left. His measured pass found Matthew Leckie in an advanced position, who must have only just stayed onside. He had the chance to power on and try and beat his defender, but instead turned inside, then back onto his left and managed to squeeze a shot through the defender’s legs and past the dive of Schmeichel into the bottom corner of the net.

The moment still makes me well up when I see it, it’s on par with John Aloisi’s penalty, but from our angle, we were spoilt, it was right in our line of sight and we just couldn’t believe it when the ball went in. It’s been a while since I celebrated a goal in such a manner, it was pure joy and amazement that we’d taken the lead and that the ball had found its way into the net against all odds in that attack. If we’re talking xG, whatever that is, it would be a 0.01 but he still scored it. The celebrations were intense in the cheap seats and the players were all celebrating with the bench who had rushed onto the field. What a moment!

The noise coming out of the Australian fans was tremendous, and the Socceroos continued to press and hassle, keeping the ball well when they had possession. Surely we wouldn’t be time-wasting for 20 minutes. Aziz Behich almost dribbled through the whole Denmark team but his cross was blocked. Denmark responded by throwing on even more firepower; they had nothing to lose after all, it was win or bust. There was a heavy shout for a penalty up at the far end, but the offside flag saved us – it did look like a foul but it was after the offside. There was still plenty of time for an equaliser and even a winner, and the Socceroos retreated further and further back. We brought on defenders for attackers, although Jamie Maclaren replaced Mitch Duke which gave us at least someone to get busy up front. Time was ticking down and it was nervy. The best chance for the Danes came right in the depths of added time when sub Andreas Cornelius should have scored with a header but it dropped tamely onto the roof of the net. We were singing our hearts out. The referee blew for full time as the Socceroos looked to invent new ways to waste time, and the whole squad raced onto the field to celebrate.

The players were thrilled, our area of the stadium was full of smiling faces and animation, we had done the unthinkable and beaten a highly rated team with established European stars and we were through to the Round of 16.

Naturally, after a win of such magnitude, there was no desire to leave the stadium, and the players and fans celebrated for a long while. I took my leave to go and find the mixed zone. I took photos of the fans along the way and it was an amazing vibe, everyone thoroughly pumped. I couldn’t see a way to get from my part of the stadium into the mixed zone, and asking the volunteers offered nothing. Trent Sainsbury was in with the expensive seats on the side, graciously taking selfies with anyone who wanted one – pretty awesome for a player who missed out on squad selection. I was directed outside and had to go out of the concourse to get back inside; I’d been in this situation upon my first visit to Khalifa Stadium and it was stressful. That little detour saved me from walking all the way back around the stadium to the media entrance and I was down in the mixed zone with a very excited Aussie media pack waiting impatiently for the players to come through.

The Danish players came through first, Andreas Christensen was one of them, and there was no way they were going to talk in English. We waited and were rewarded with Riley McGree. I managed to get a handshake, and a high five from the FA’s Chris and Carlo who were excitedly following the players. McGree explained that tonight had made everything worthwhile, the squad believed in themselves. When pressed to explain what it meant to win tonight, he suggested that this would give great exposure to football in Australia, it would inspire the younger generation and that it was a great moment for football in our country. Wearing a singlet and looking completely Australian, his tattoos were on show and he was asked who was on his arm. It was him going to Goodison Park for the first time, such was his love of football, and he had an Olympic logo and lots of family things. He spoke really well; I would be in bits after a result like this if I’d been playing.

Next was Mitch Duke, and we shared a handshake too. It hadn’t sunk in yet for Duke, and he said it was an unbelievable moment; the belief in the camp was second to none, and warned not to right the Socceroos off. There was lots to be excited about and the job was not done yet. They were going to enjoy tonight and not get too ahead of themselves – six points was unbelievable and they had made history tonight. He didn’t even know the Tunisia score; I hadn’t checked it either, but it didn’t matter one bit.

Finally we had Maty Ryan, who described his ambitious group of players who were not done yet. They had belief that they were not done yet for the next match. Bailey Wright and Keanu Bacchus had made a difference when they came on.

At this point, everyone was distracted by Kasper Hjulmand’s press conference playing on TV, as if he was going to emotionally announce something drastic, but I was concentrating on Ryan. When asked how for the Socceroos could go, he said they were riding a wave, and that they would let their actions do the talking.

You could tell that all the players were immensely proud, and they could have stood and talked for hours, but Bec was there to expertly manouevre them on to the changing rooms so they could join their teammates and celebrate the win. That was my cue to leave, and I was concerned that I might not make the shuttle bus to the next game. I quickly walked down to the media centre, and there was a gate right next to it where everyone was heading. I went through and found the media shuttle bus that was going to Stadium 974; there weren’t many on there, but lo and behold there was Carlo from the FA who had the same idea as me; I’d never met Carlo before the World Cup, and it turned out that we played Premier League in the local comp a year apart at my club West Ryde Rovers and knew lots of common people. Small world.

The shuttle was pretty quick getting to the next venue, it wasn’t that far as the crow flies and the bus was given priority over every other vehicle on the road. We swung into the small bus area right in front of the media entrance. Perfect! This was a new stadium for me, but the yellow livery of the media sections was familiar throughout, so we could work out where to go. I printed my tickets for tomorrow’s games, bought a cheap water (with a lid) and made my way up to the media tribunes. They weren’t lying when they said the stadium was made of shipping containers. The main structure of the stadium was like any other, but all the facilities, the bathrooms, the stairwells, the lifts, everything else was made from shipping containers. Quite an impressive sight.

I was on the comedown from my five pint salco at the Hive and from the adrenaline high of the Socceroos game. I was feeling quite rough, and started to notice a bit of a cough that would catch me out from time to time and I didn’t have time to cover my mouth. The whole group at the Seven Pearls complex had been down with some sort of annoying cold-like ailment, and perhaps it was my turn to enjoy its delights, now that I’d run my body close to empty.

It wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying tonight’s game though. This was another Argentina game. It had extra meaning though; it was group C, the winners of the group going through to play Australia in the Round of 16. In Argentina’s way were Poland, who had beaten Saudi Arabia to sit top of the group. The group was so tight, Mexico even with a chance of going through if things went their way and they scored lots of goals.

I had a media seat for this one, on the right of the desks, all the way up in row AA, and right beside a whole section full of Argentina fans. In fact, looking around the stadium, the blue and white shirts were everywhere apart from a tiny patch at the far end of the field where Poland had their active section of a few hundred fans. How on earth did the Argentina fans get all of the tickets for the rest of the stadium? I was there in my Jackson Irvine Number 22 shirt, the fans in the stadium oblivious to the fact that they were vying for the opportunity of playing the Socceroos in the knock out stages. I should have felt endangered. Instead I felt ten foot tall.

The stadium was packed. It must have been at capacity. The national anthem was deafening from the Argentinians; I really felt privileged to be here and I’m sure everyone in the stadium was thinking the same thing. Poland had won one and drawn one, so a point would be enough, but it might not be enough for Argentina. The expectation was for an all-out onslaught by the Albiceleste, but this World Cup had already thrown up its fair share of surprises, so nothing was certain. The Argentina fans bounced and the stadium shook, it was an amazing spectacle.

Poland very much held their own at the start of the game, despite the crowd being totally partisan. As predicated, Argentina would enjoy the majority of the ball, and Lionel Messi, the man they’d all come to worship, who could be playing in his final game at a World Cup tonight, went close after ten minutes with a rasping shot from a difficult angle that Wojciech Szczesny batted away. Angel Di Maria then got to the byline and pulled back for Julian Alvarez who fluffed his lines and the ball was cleared, but only to Marcos Acuna who smashed a shot just past the post to a massive roar.

This was what World Cup football was all about. Passionate fans giving their all for their team to win, a stubborn opponent looking to spoil the party and make their own history. When the Scottish-sounding Alexis MacAllister played in Alvarez with ten minutes of the half remaining, Sczcesny had to be quick to come out and block. Alvaez picked up the rebound and crossed a hopeful ball to the far post and Messi jumped highest to try and guide the ball on target. Szczesny had jumped in front of him and there was a suggestion of a hand in the face, and judging by the reaction of the Argentina fans and from the rolling around of Messi, it could be a VAR shout. Quite incredibly, the referee went away and looked at his screen – surely this wasn’t a penalty. It was, you know, and the Polish players were incensed. Szczesny didn’t seem fazed, and after a few moments, up stepped Messi to strike the ball with venom towards goal, but the Polish goalkeeper had guessed right and made an amazing save to push the ball wide for a corner. Noise levels were at a maximum now. Argentina continued their dominance and Szczesny was forced into further saves to keep the score goalless at the break.

The people-watching was amazing here. The Argentinians were animated and full of verve, the odd Polish fan dotted around was looking bemused at seeing a sea of blue and white around them. Half-time gave us the light show and the crowd was given a further rev up for the second half. Unfortunately the Polish lady who was given the task of firing up the Polish fans chose a Go West style song which fell flat on its face and was cut short by the main half-time presenter.

Poland had made some changes at the break, but Argentina were straight on the attack from the kick off, and Nahuel Molina was played in down the right, just about staying onside. His low cross to the edge of the eighteen yard box found MacAllister, who didn’t appear to connect perfectly with the ball, but his low shot trundled past the outretched arm of Szczesny and bounced off the base of the post and in for a dramatic start to a vital 45 minutes. Argentina had their goal, now would they build on it or would they consolidate to maintain the lead?

Messi did one of his mesmerising solo runs only to shoot wide, and there were further good opportunities without troubling the Poland defence. Argentina made some defence-minded subs, but that wouldn’t stop them searching for another goal to seal the game. And the second goal did come, and it was Enzo Fernandez who did the approach work to feed Alvarez who let rip from inside the area to find the top corner and send the fans into rapture. That was a great hit and it was a long time overdue given the stranglehold Argentina had over the game.

There were still 25 minutes to go, this could get ugly for Poland, but they still had everything to play for. Messi had an easy chance, by his standards anyway, for three from a deft cut back but he fired straight at the keeper. Alvarez was set clean away by a pinpoint Messi ball but found the side netting. Tonight’s attendance was announced as 44,089, exactly the official capacity of the stadium, which drew a big roar from the crowd. There were fifteen minutes to go and there were Olés for every Argentina pass. Poland had absolutely nothing to offer. Krzysztof Piatek was waiting to come on, but stood on the sideline for five minutes as Argentina played keep ball and prevented the ball from going out.

Martinez had time to miss a sitter from in front, screwing his shot wide after intercepting a back pass, and this was a procession by now, Poland not interested in attacking and hoping that the result from Saudi Arabia v Mexico went their way. The six minutes of added time gave the fans an opportunity to bring the noise to its peak, the ‘Ooooh Argentina, ole ole ola’ chant being sung by almost everyone in the stadium. Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi battled for the ball in the middle of the park like two teenage prodigies vying for a first team spot, and that was the last action of a fantastic game of football.

Poland would now have to wait. They were huddled while Argentina celebrated with their fans. At last the confirmation came through and the Poland players broke out of their huddle and celebrated. Both teams through here tonight and a cause for much celebration for every person in the crowd. Lionel Messi’s international career would continue, and it was confirmed that Argentina would be through to play Australia in the Round of 16.

I bumped into Polish Aussie Ian Pulczynski and his dad outside the stadium. He was annoyed that he couldn’t be at the Australia game, and was rueing the fact that Poland couldn’t finish top of the group and play against Australia in the Round of 16. But he was delighted to have his two teams qualify for the knockout stages and that there was more football to come.

I was conspicuous in my yellow shirt as I made my way to the metro. The walk to the metro was no longer than Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, but it got very congested. I was speaking with an Argentinian fan who asked if I could get him a ticket for the next game. We hadn’t even thought that far ahead, but it showed that he, along with his many thousands of fellow Argentinians, would explore all avenues to secure a ticket to watch their country’s football team in action.

The carriage was bouncing as it left Ras Bu Abboud metro station. It was literally going up and down as every Argentina fan jumped up and down to the beat of the hypnotic songs. I was happy to get off at Msheireb and change to get off at DECC and do the walk to the Hotel Intercontinental and our home pub, the Hive bar. There were people already leaving after a big night celebrating post-game, but the bar was still pumping when I arrived with another set of vouchers in my hand.

There were lots of familiar faces from earlier in the day, the party was still in full swing, and as the crowd thinned out, we were left in there with a group of Saudi party boys, who were away with the fairies and gutted when the bar announced it was closing at 3pm. The slurry on the floor that was mopped up as we left was the sign of a busy night of spilled drinks and unsteady customers, ie a great party.

The hours spent away from the Hive would stand me in good stead for tomorrow, for another two big games, but I was a little concerned at how rough I’d started to sound, hacking and coughing badly, the light-headedness though might be attributed to the beers I’d demolished in the final two hours at the pub.

We caught an Uber back to the Seven Pearls, and talk had turned to what to do next. We were meant to fly out at 2am, the morning after the Socceroos Round of 16 game that kicked off at 10pm the night before, so wouldn’t be able to make the game. Unless …

Matches attended : 21 of 40
Matches missed : Saudi Arabia v Mexico, Tunisia v France

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