Harry Souttar knew what was about to happen before anyone else did.
Kye Rowles — his centre-back partner who had been largely flawless up until this point — had made an error. It was only for a second, but in international football, a second can be all it takes. The small tug on a thread that sees an entire game unravel.
It was the 85th minute of Australia’s second group stage match against Tunisia and the young Rowles had taken his eye off the ball as it dropped towards him out of the clear, Doha sky.
And who could blame him? He was exhausted. He had just spent most of this second half digging his heels in against wave after wave of Tunisia’s increasingly desperate attacks.
Now, with a few metres of green space opening up around him, he finally had a moment to breathe, a moment to take a look around.
What he saw was not so much a stadium of people as a red and white tide: A sea of flags and movement and unfathomable noise that had poured into the open hand of Al Janoub.
Tunisia’s fans outnumbered Australia’s travelling contingent, 20-to-one, their piercing whistles and thrumming chants squeezing the streaks of yellow and green out of the game’s soundscape.
They looked and sounded the way Tunisia’s players felt, especially as the game went on.
It was as if those 11 players turned the energy of the noisy nation singing at their backs into something physical and real: to use the battle-ram of their bodies to do to the Socceroos what their fans had begun in the game’s opening stages, closing them in on all sides with walls of suffocating sound.
Tunisia’s head coach summarised the 30,000-strong moveable nation best a day earlier: “They are part of a small country, according to the world, but a big country according to our eyes.”
This is what Rowles saw in the moment he looked up to follow the curve of the ball as it fell towards him.
Maybe it was this that distracted him for just a second to lose it in the red and white waves. And, so, instead of cushioning it with his stronger left foot, the rubber flew straight past, bouncing up off the turf and awkwardly striking his face.
The young defender scrambled and, in his panicked reckoning, fell backwards into the grass.
Tunisia’s substitute striker, Taha Yassine Khenissi, swept on his error like a ravenous eagle, picking up the ball and flying into the clear space beyond.
However, as Rowles turned around, expecting to watch Tunisia bury an equaliser and put a potential end to Australia’s World Cup dreams, what he saw instead was Harry Souttar — all six-foot-seven of him — opening his shoulders and lengthening his stride as he charged across the field, reeling in the quick Tunisian with every galactic step.
You would not have known this was just Souttar’s third start after returning from a year out with a knee injury. The Socceroos’ “man mountain” made at least a dozen crucial blocks, tackles, headers and clearances to keep Australia alive.
None were as defining — of a player, a team, a game, and a moment — as what happened next.
Souttar barrelled towards Khenissi and, with an almost four-dimensional sense of timing, threw his towering frame towards the striker and came out on the other side with the ball.
It was so unexpected that even the overhead camera followed the hypothetical path Khenissi should have carved into the penalty box.
Instead, Souttar carried himself, the ball and the hopes of Australia into the wide green pitch that welcomed him into it.
Until that point, the sound of the small pockets of Australian fans in the stadium’s south-west corner had been largely quiet.
But that tackle inspired a roar that barrelled through the missile whistles of Tunisia’s increasingly frustrated supporters.
It was a roar that felt like it was carried across the sea from the nation that had gathered around televisions and in public spaces across Australia to watch this team, here, now, making history.
It was not just Souttar’s tackle that embodied the fight and the fire that Graham Arnold has so often used to describe the Socceroos.
It was all of them. It was Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine’s relentless running through midfield. It was Mat Ryan’s acrobatic catches and punches above the white peaks of Tunisian shirts. It was Craig Goodwin and Mat Leckie’s calf-cramping sprints, Riley McGree’s mongrel and muscle, the bruised bodies of Aziz Behich and Fran Karacic thrown in front of every ball.
A goal worth the 12-year wait
And then there was the goal. The goal. The goal that has already been written into Australian football folklore.
It was not just the way it was scored — a leap of faith as much as of desire, inspired by an almost existential need to always run further, jump higher, fight harder — that said so much about this team and this game. It was also who scored it.
Mitch Duke is not the name that springs to mind when you think of iconic Australian strikers. He has never been someone that the country has truly had faith in.
From working three jobs while trying to make it as a professional to moving to Japan’s second-tier to get regular game time, this boy from a big family in Western Sydney has had to fight his entire life to be seen, to be believed, to be given his moment in the sun.
And now here he was, leaping into the bright Doha sky, guiding the ball into the far corner of the net and shaking himself free of what felt like the whole world’s doubt in the process.
A man and a moment that embodies what Australian football, in all its misunderstood and underestimated glory, is about.
He is just the eighth Australian to ever score at a men’s World Cup — something even more significant, given he never thought he would make it here in the first place — putting him alongside the Socceroos’ other greats on the mantle piece of our collective football memories.
Indeed, it is where this whole team deserves to be, having made history together as the first Socceroos side to keep a clean sheet since 1974, and just the third ever to walk off that grand green stage knowing they had achieved what so few before them had done.
Arnold, too, belongs in this pantheon of greats: The man who held firm in his convictions when the rest of the country fell away is now the first Australian-born coach to win a game at a men’s World Cup.
The goal, the tackle, the saves, the runs: These small moments in a tangled thread of moments that spanned these 90 miracle minutes, a match that personified everything we want the Socceroos to be.
They are a team filled with fight and fire. A team filled with men who know what it means to struggle and to suffer, and how it feels to come out the other side. A team that has never given up on themselves, even when it seemed like the rest of us had.
“We always talk about wanting to be the team that brings the quality on top of everything else, but today it was about harnessing that fight and that spirit, and we did it in abundance,” Irvine said afterwards. “It’s very much the heart of what this team, over the years, has been through.
“When you’re out there, at certain times and in certain games, you just know that it’s our day today. And it felt like it from the beginning. Everyone was just exceptional.
“The tackles, big moments, big players producing moments that will be iconic going forward. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to enjoy it. That’s the best part of the game: being involved in that kind of stuff and seeing it on each other’s faces.
“Even moments when we had a little mistake and someone was there to clean up, it felt like everyone was there for each other in the difficult moments and the good moments. Similar to the feeling against Peru. It just felt like it was our day.”
Harry Souttar knew what was about to happen before we did. The Socceroos knew. Graham Arnold knew. And now, finally, after all this time, so do we.