For 18 minutes, the Socceroos dared to dream. For 18 minutes they had scored from open play at a World Cup for the first time since Brazil 2014, when Tim Cahill conjured that exquisite volley against the Netherlands. For 18 minutes they led a match at the finals, something not achieved since that same fixture in Porto Alegre – and that was only four minutes. And for 18 minutes they had done those things against France, the defending champions.
This match was the domain of Kylian Mbappé, of Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembélé. Except that for 18 minutes it was the realm of Craig Goodwin, a concept so surreal the packed media tribunes at the Al Janoub Stadium practically shook in psychedelia. Cognitive processes became frazzled. Twitter exploded. Pubs across Australia woke up the neighbours who did not yet know that this unfathomable thing was happening 10,000km away.
The Socceroos had always been up against it to take anything from their opening fixture. But, in the ninth minute, when Harry Souttar had provided that long diagonal ball to the right wing, and Mathew Leckie had cut inside and crossed to Goodwin for that superb finish, they allowed a sliver of possibility that something wonderful might happen.
Once the drugs wore off and the defence wilted to a concoction much more potent than theirs, the comedown felt all the more harrowing. The 4-1 loss was not unexpected; few would have predicted anything else. But that’s what happens when hope is involved.
“That’s why they’re world champions,” a deflated coach Graham Arnold said afterwards. “We started the game very well. Physically they were just so much bigger and faster and stronger than us. The boys did everything they could and that’s all I can ask.”
Adrien Rabiot’s equaliser in the 27th burst the bubble. As nice as those 18 minutes were, reality had been coming. France had been laying siege to Australia’s goal and continued to do so until the final whistle.
It is difficult to call this performance anything else but admirable. The nature of the 4-1 rout will have come as a shock to the players, many of them young with little experience on big stages such as this.
That is certainly the case for Nathaniel Atkinson, who was deployed at right-back with one of the less enviable tasks in existence, and Mbappé was not keen on being contained.
“He did his best against one of the best players in the world,” Arnold said. “Leckie and Jackson Irvine helped him. That was the plan, that when Mbappé got the ball the three of them got out there and helped. But how do you stop someone so quick? It’s very difficult. It’s a great lesson for the kid.”
That is how the Socceroos would be best to treat this. France have a hold on Group D but second place is there for the taking. Tunisia’s draw with Denmark has heightened the stakes, though a defeat of Tunisia on Saturday would mean next Wednesday’s final tie with Denmark is very much a live opportunity.
Arnold will know this, and the challenge for him now is to somehow resurrect the positive mindset that had been a pre-tournament fixture.
“We’ve built the belief, and the energy and the energy and focus, in the last week since we’ve been in camp,” Arnold said. “The way we started, I think they believed. We just got punished by our mistakes, and the delivery of their crosses was right on target. That’s that game gone, and the other result was a draw, so now it’s about winning on Saturday.”
Arnold emptied his bench, bringing on Jason Cummings and Awer Mabil and giving runs to Miloš Degenek, Keanu Baccus and Garang Kuol, the latter of whom became Australia’s youngest World Cup player in history. The 18-year-old will surely see more game time this tournament, and tired bodies may mean changes against Tunisia.
“We can do, that’s why we’ve got 26 players,” Arnold said. “I just felt that tonight, having Harry Souttar [was ideal] for the size of Giroud and these players. But we’ve got the option of obviously changing players, and making sure we get some fresh ones out there.”
One could pick through individual performances, dissect what went wrong and who didn’t do what. But really, against this sort of opponent, what is the point? France may be beset with problems – of injuries and divisions and coaching uncertainty – but they are still France. Their players are regular starters for Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Goodwin is a regular starter for Adelaide United, Leckie for Melbourne City. Only Mabil, for La Liga side Cadiz, plays in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Kuol is now on the books of Newcastle United.
This was a walkover waiting to happen. But for those precious 18 minutes, the Socceroos were winners.