Aziz Behich receives the ball on the left side of the field, takes a touch with his right, and looks up.
Beyond him, space. An unusual and tempting amount of it, given the circumstances. In his peripheral vision, a blur of blue and white is charging towards him from midfield. He hasn’t got long – maybe half a second – before it arrives. He needs to decide what to do next.
The touch he’d taken was a little heavy, a little too long, a little too inviting. The two of them – Aziz and the blur – will probably reach the ball at the same time. But instead of sliding in, throwing himself recklessly and desperately at it to keep possession, he puts his head down and accelerates, sliding off the defender’s barrelling body and charging into the unknown.
The 45,000-strong crowd, filled mostly with Argentina fans, sits up. What is this guy doing? Is he mad?
He reaches the top of the box. Two more blurs step forward, squeezing him in from both sides, taking up the space. But Behich opens his stride and skips past them, too, following the siren call of the ball that’s rolling out ahead of him.
He couldn’t – could he?
The white line of the box disappears beneath Behich’s whirring legs as he enters the area. The crowd begins to swell. A third blur darts into view, twisting a hopeless leg behind himself and praying it’s enough to interrupt this riotous run. But the Socceroos full-back arrives first, clipping the ball in-field and onto his right foot.
There, suddenly, is the goal. He almost can’t believe he’s here, staring at the net behind Emiliano Martinez. And yet, he can. He does. He has believed his entire life.
He coils his leg backwards as the noise of the whole world crescendos.
What was Behich imagining then, do you think? Did he ever dream he would be here — 2-1 down in the 80th minute of a World Cup knockout game against Argentina, in this kaleidoscope of colour and sound, with a chance to score perhaps the goal of the tournament?
Did the weight of that flash through his mind in the five touches it took to get from there to here? Did he have time to think, to dream, to imagine it at all?
“I wasn’t thinking, that’s the problem,” Behich said.
“I just remember getting the ball and one of their players didn’t want to foul me. So once I got ahead of him, and I started picking up some pace, and I got in the box, I just knew – if they touch me here, anything can happen.
“As I got past the last guy, I actually opened my body and said, ‘as long as I hit the target here, it’s in.’ Looking back at the video, the keeper’s gone the wrong way as well as I’ve taken the shot.
“But it was a great tackle – it was pretty much like a Harry Souttar tackle, but this time it was on us.
“It would have been great. It would have been a special moment for our country and our team. But it wasn’t to be.”
The stuff dreams (and nightmares) are made of
It’s a funny old thing, football. Twenty-two people run around for 90 minutes and, by the end of it, an entire nation begins to dream of something new.
That’s what this whole night, this whole game, felt like: a dream.
Australia’s round-of-16 match against Argentina was something you imagine as a child, looking up at the posters of footballing gods blu-tacked to your bedroom wall.
It was something you read about in magazines, transported to the hot streets of Buenos Aires or Córdoba or Rosario, swept up in a vast tide of singing, chanting apostles.
It was something you watched on television in the hazy early hours of an Australian morning with the volume low in your room, but with the noise of the crowd echoing endlessly in your mind.
When you closed your eyes, you saw yourself here, in a place like Ahmad bin Ali in western Doha, walking out into this whirlpool of sound contained within a shell, a stadium wrapped in a web of stars.
You saw the fans, that great heaving mass of light and limb, cascading up into the sky. You see that team, the one that feels like a religion, the meeting place for its countless faithful, those 11 men in white and blue robes just on the other side of the pitch from you.
And then you see him. The man that everybody is here to see. The man who will be looked at forever, immortalised on the fronts of posters and the backs of jerseys, painted on banners and inked on skin. The man who feels like a walking myth, a dream made flesh. The man who bends space with the twang of his divine left foot, the man who might put an end to your time here, but who you are miraculously placed to watch him do so.
This World Cup is meant to be Lionel Messi’s tournament. This knockout game was meant to be, too. The Argentina captain tallied his 1,000th professional match, with his goal taking him past the great Maradona’s record. He is getting older, and this shot at infinity is likely his very last. As a result, Argentina is a lot of people’s second team, their second love.
But this night was not about him, or about them – at least, not for the first half-hour. It was about the Socceroos.
It was about Keanu Baccus, the young midfielder whose first start for the Socceroos came against the man who inspired him to be there, who crunched into Messi in the sixth minute and shrugged coolly as he walked away from the impact crater.
It was about Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles, two 24-year-old centre-backs who have played just five times together in their lives, who interrupted Messi’s laws of physics to trip and stomp and crash around and keep him largely contained.
It was about Aaron Mooy, the head and heart and lungs of this battling team, using the force of his own presence to create little ripples of pressure that moved Messi backwards or sideways.
You could see him trying to figure it out, trying to find the angles and the spaces. For a man with so vast and weighty a reputation, he is a player that does remarkably little on a football field.
He looks around, takes a few steps here, a few steps there. Stops. Does a little jog, stops again. It’s the rest of the game that instead seems to shift, to shuffle, to shape around him like gravity around a warping planet.
The first goal – his goal, the goal – was not so much a sequence of football as a kind of dream made real, like Messi’s own imagination playing out in real-time. It started on the right: an impossible cushioning of the spinning orb, a quick low wriggle to lose one player, a lightning pass and burst forward to lose a second.
Then, for a moment, he disappears, swallowed up by the air. He ghosts into the box, protected by the invisible cloak of the universe, and a few seconds later reappears, re-emerges into the reality of the game. Does he react to the ball, or simply arrive at where he always knew it would be? Is it chance or is it destiny? It is always hard to know with him.
The Socceroos were always going to look decidedly human against a man such as this. But that humanity – that raw, rough, relentless humanity – is exactly what has made us love them throughout their World Cup journey.
There was humanity in Aziz Behich, this decade-old Socceroo, shoving the god of football in the chest after giving away that pivotal free-kick, then risking it all to charge into the unknown in an act of what felt like repentance.
There was humanity in Mitch Duke, that inexhaustible spearhead, soaring his way from hometown hero to a history-making header against Tunisia.
There was humanity in Miloš Degenek, the man who burst into tears trying to explain how much he loves his Socceroos family and how badly he wants to stay, just to spend more time with them.
There was humanity in Mat Ryan, this team’s commander in battle, whose very human error may have cost them the game but whose leadership is the reason they were playing it at all.
There was humanity in Mat Leckie, his calves cramping like tight springs; there was humanity in Jackson Irvine clattering around the field with his awkward gangly limbs; there was humanity in Craig Goodwin’s risk-it-all whack of his laces through the ball; there was humanity in Garang Kuol, the 18-year-old rising star, spinning in the box and seeing his future yawning open before him.
And there was humanity in the millions of people back home, the ones who journeyed in the dark hours before the dawn to live sites across the country, piling into squares and streets and stadiums, brought together by something that had always been there but which had been waiting in the shadows of our memories for the moment it could finally be found, dusted off and lifted up into the light.
“That’s one thing that we have achieved back in Australia, reuniting the nation after COVID; reuniting our sport of football,” Graham Arnold said the day before the game.
“We’ve seen scenes of Fed Square and the celebrations back in Australia, it really makes everyone proud. And we want more.”
What does this mean for the future?
Is football a game of chance or destiny? On Saturday, it felt like both.
And that, in a way, is the most fitting end for the Socceroos’ World Cup: a game filled with possibility, with hope, with the sharp intake of breath at having glimpsed a new chance, a new destiny, just over the horizon.
Australian football has arrived at the trembling edge of something – something greater, some bigger and bolder dream. Like the Socceroos themselves, this game has always believed in itself, in what it can do if all the pieces came together, if we all sang from the same hymn sheet.
From grassroots to youth pathways, to the A-Leagues, to media coverage, the game has never quite cracked through that ceiling of reverence; never quite reached what its many faithful followers have always believed it could become. But you only need to look at that game against Argentina, that moment, to see what it could look like: to see the content of those dreams flickering to life.
“We’ve accomplished something with this group that no other Socceroos team has done,” Behich said.
“We’ve kept clean sheets, we’ve scored in every game in a World Cup. We’ve got out of the group stage on equal points on top. We only lost to France and Argentina.
“For us, as players, we’ve done our part. The other parts, to grow the game, that bit’s out of our hands. They obviously know who they are.
“This should be a massive stepping stone for Australian football to go forward. I can’t see why it shouldn’t. I’m hoping that it will inspire the next generation coming through that it’s possible to match the best in the world, even being Australia.
“This is the perfect moment for Australian football to step forward.”
Aziz Behich is running into the box. Garang Kuol is spinning on a dime. The entire country is holding its breath.