As the 2022 World Cup begins, foxsports.com.au takes a look at some of the biggest moments in Socceroos history to take place at football’s biggest show.
Next up: Tim Cahill’s screamer heard across Australia in 2014.
At just about any World Cup in history, it would undoubtedly go down as the goal of the tournament.
But in 2014 in Brazil, Tim Cahill’s thunderous volley against heavyweights Netherlands was robbed of that honour by an equally sublime moment of brilliance.
Colombia’s James Rodriguez scored six times in a breakout tournament, earning him the golden boot as top-scorer – and his chest-and-volley in the Round of 16 was awarded the best goal of the Brazil World Cup.
Nevertheless, Cahill’s strike will rightly be fondly remembered as one of the great World Cup goals for its immense technical difficulty and sheer beauty.
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Maybe we are the next golden generation’ | 13:08
SOCCEROOS WORLD CUP MOMENTS
‘Maybe I accentuated it’: The ice-cold claim and brutal reality of greatest heartbreak
The inside story of THAT epic World Cup blunder … and the other one we all forget
‘Head on the chopping block’: Moment maligned Socceroo turned from scapegoat to saviour
THE UNFORGETTABLE TOURNAMENT
Brazil, 2014: Widely agreed to be one of the greatest World Cups ever held. The world’s greatest show returned to South America – the birthplace of the Cup in 1930 – for the first time since Argentina ’78. All the big names were there: every nation who had ever hoisted the famous trophy. But in a tournament of stunning upsets, the heavyweights fell early and fell hard. Spain was dumped out in the group stage, Italy and England too by an underdog Costa Rica team that quickly became everyone’s second-favourite side. Then there was Brazil – the hosts and strong favourites – copping the iconic, infamous 7-1 semi-final thrashing that broke a nation’s hearts.
There were legendary goalkeeping performances from Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, and Chile’s Claudio Bravo to name a few – but that didn’t stop a record-equalling 171 goals. There was new technology – goal line technology, or referees wielding vanishing foam with aplomb (and for that matter, hardly ever brandishing red cards in a remarkably clean tournament). There was the beautiful Adidas Brazuca ball, making up for the nightmare Jabulani that wreaked havoc four years earlier in South Africa. And it all started with Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez kicking off a festival of football in the country of the carnival.
In so many ways, it was unforgettable. For Socceroos fans, however, one moment stands out above the rest – and makes up for the heartbreak that followed.
THE TORRID BUILD-UP
Australia entered the 2014 World Cup as the greatest of underdogs – 62nd in the world, the lowest ranking of the 32 competitors in Brazil. Harsh as that may seem, the build-up to the tournament put the Socceroos place in the football world in a stark light. In October 2013, the Brazilians had thrashed the Socceroos 6-0 in front of 40,000 in the newly-reconstructed US$900m stadium in Brasilia. A week later, France did the same in Paris. Holger Osieck was punted from the head coaching role. Ange Postecoglou took charge, and picked up two wins on the trot to end 2013. But the preparation for the 2014 World Cup couldn’t have gone much worse, in terms of results at least. Eight friendlies in 2014, five losses, and just the single win.
Then came a World Cup group with the 2010 champions AND runners up – Spain and the Netherlands respectively – and a mighty Chilean team ranked 14th in the world. Group of Death? For Australia, at least.
But Ange Postecoglou promised one thing – the Aussies would never back down, would play the opponents as merely 11 men wearing a different coloured shirt and not giants of the game. It is eerily similar to the words current manager Graham Arnold has spoken in the past fortnight. And for one beautiful sunny day in Porto Alegre, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the teams had been given the wrong jerseys – that the Australians should have been wearing the famous Orange of the Dutch – the Oranje. The nation that brought us Total Football, Johann Cruyff, and his famous Cruyff turn – which any Socceroos fan will tell you was stolen from an Australian, after all. Because, as The Guardian wrote in 2014, for that first half at the Estadio Beira-Rio, “Australia were playing more Dutch than the Dutch.”
The Australians had lost 3-1 to Chile – supposedly the Socceroos’ best chance of victory in the group – in their opening match a few days earlier. Of course, it was a Tim Cahill header that found the net for Australia on that day, making him the first Australian to strike at three separate World Cups. But his best was yet to come – and against a Dutch side that had torn the reigning champions Spain to shreds, 5-1, in a rematch of the 2010 final.
It was the biggest defeat a reigning champion had ever suffered in a World Cup, a blindingly brilliant statement of intent from the Netherlands, especially after conceding the opening goal of the encounter. Having blasted five past the No.1 team in the world, the Dutch were subsequently expected to thrash the Socceroos – only, no-one had told Ange Postecoglou and his band of Australians.
Arjen Robben – the great Arjen Robben and his superlative left boot – had played a dazzling role in that Spanish demolition, bagging a brace. And it was the flying Dutchman who found the net first against the Socceroos on that sunny Wednesday in Brazil, racing half the length of the field to bury the ball clinically in the far corner. Having conceded twice in the opening 15 minutes against Chile, the Australians were now already a goal down after 20 minutes. The Dutch fans, a waving sea of orange far from home, cheered and sang with the supreme confidence of a nation that believed – nay, expected – that victory was assured.
But if the bruising defeat to Chile had tarnished the confidence and the fighting spirit of those 11 men in gold and green, it didn’t show. The reaction to Robben’s goal one of shared frustration. The Australian heads did not bow – and the game had only just restarted when the Socceroos roared.
In the centre circle, Mark Bresciano played the ball to the feet of Mat Leckie, who was thrown to the ground as a Dutch defender came charging in from behind. But Leckie had got a touch to the ball before being sent to the turf, flicking it sideways in front of Ryan McGowan.
Almost as soon as the referee raised his arms to signal an Australian advantage, the ball had left the defender’s feet, soaring towards goal. Cahill hadn’t even raised a hand or screamed for the ball to be launched his way. And yet McGowan had struck it in his direction without so much as a touch beforehand. Was it hope or desperation? Perhaps – but not nearly so much as belief, trust and instincts. Belief that they could catch the Dutch off guard, overconfident or switched-off just seconds after scoring at the other end. Trust that Cahill could do what he would do more than any other Socceroo in history: score. Instinct that he would be in the perfect place to receive that brilliant 42 metre pass.
‘Just hit it to Timmy!’ The fans roared time and again at Socceroos games down the years. And so it was.
McGowan lobbed that first-time ball over the Dutch defenders like a grenade. And there was Cahill, the greatest ever Socceroos scorer, lurking on the shoulder of the centre-back like a tiger waiting to pounce on its prey.
As he raced into the box, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dutch defenders, the ball tumbled out of the sky. Cahill had headed the ball into the back of the net what seems like a million times through his career – including in the previous World Cup match against Chile.
This time, however, he didn’t leap, didn’t try to nod the ball into the net. He didn’t turn his body to face the ball, but rather let it drop over his head as he charged forwards. And then, in a moment of pure, unfiltered brilliance, Cahill swung his supposedly weaker left foot to strike the ball before it bounced. Boot and ball collided and BOOM. The ball was in the back of the net.
The Dutch keeper had no chance of stopping the thunderous volley before it rocketed into the goal. Such was the incomprehensible nature of the strike that Cahill had begun assaulting the corner flag in his iconic celebration before fans even realised what had happened.
Fan footage shows Dutch supporters in the stands looking absolutely dumbstruck, while Dutch manager Louis van Gaal – hardly one to smile – was the opposite of those in the stands, instead looking wholly unimpressed.
In commentary for BBC, French legend Thierry Henry declared it his favourite goal of the Cup.
“In terms of beauty, the goal scored by Tim Cahill against the Dutch was the best so far,” he said.
“It just felt so right to hit it, and I hit it sweetly,” Cahill said after the game.
“That one’s up there,” he told FourFourTwo Magazine in 2019. “I’ve always been a strong believer in just taking a chance.
“I know I’m either going to hit the back of the net or Row Z, and mentally it doesn’t bother me if it hits Row Z as I will do it again – I’ll look for another moment to make somebody say, ‘Wow’.
“I can’t explain how it felt to score that goal – it was like an out-of-body experience. All you can do to understand how much it meant to me is watch it and see me going crazy during the celebrations.”
In the modern statistic-obsessed footballing world, the new-age statistic that dominates discussions more than any other is expected goals (xG). How likely or probable a shot is to find the back of the net, based on a range of factors including position, distance to the goal, angle, the number of surrounding defenders, the body part used.
An expected goal value of zero means the shot is effectively impossible to score. An XG of one means the strike is a certainty. Years ago, Cahill’s goal was given an XG value of 0.05 – effectively, a five percent chance of scoring. The analysis claims it was only the seventh-hardest (or least likely) goal of the entire tournament! Suffice to say, the stats don’t come close to the reality of how vastly improbable, how technically difficult the strike truly was. One in twenty chance of scoring that? Nonsense.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the goal was its eerie similarity to another iconic goal: Marco van Basten – a three-time Ballon d’Or winner – and his vicious strike in the 1988 Euros final against the USSR.
And after the game, Cahill was proud to speak of the great Dutch striker.
“When you look at your idols like Marco van Basten and even Robin van Persie, they’re the sort of goals they score,” Cahill said after the game. “You dream as a kid for these opportunities. At home in my garden I score like that everyday but this is what’s it’s all about.
“When the ball was flying over normally people expect me to jump and head that from 18 yards but it just sat so beautifully off the shoulder of the defender and I struck it and it went in.”
While Cahill had emulated van Basten, it was the second man he mentioned – Robin van Persie – who put a halt to the Australian celebrations.
The Socceroos, fighting with great spirit and tenacity, managed to claim the most shocking of leads when Mile Jedinak scored from the penalty spot nine minutes into the second half after a handball in the box. The impossible suddenly seemed within reach.
But just four minutes later, the Dutch striker caught the Australian defenders out and broke the offside trap, receiving the ball in the box from substitute Memphis Depay, controlling it calmly before coolly rifling it into the roof of the net. All square again, this pulsating encounter poised on a knife edge.
The Australians didn’t back down from the fight. And a surging counter-attack saw Tommy Oar fizz a cross to Mat Leckie, giving him a golden chance to reclaim the lead. But Leckie could only chest the ball to keeper Jasper Cillesen. And then, mere minutes later, the Socceroos fell. Depay found himself in an acre of space 30 metres from goal as the Socceroos left a gaping chasm. Depay looked up and rolled the dice. His long shot bounced in front of Australian gloveman Mat Ryan, just 22 at the time, who failed to deal with the Dutchman’s hopeful effort. The ball bundled into the net. 3-2 – Depay’s first goal for the national team and one which took a fair helping from Ryan’s unusually indecisive effort in goals.
The Australians bravely fought until the final whistle, one of their finest performances at any World Cup. Ryan made a brilliant diving save to keep the dream alive. But the whistle inevitably came, with the Netherlands scraping by in a match they were expected to utterly dominate.
Australia’s manager at the time, Ange Postecoglou, was gutted.
“I put pressure on the players and the staff to go and get at the big teams. Saying it and doing it are two different things. But today they did that and they didn’t get a reward. It’s heartbreaking,” said Postecoglou. “Everyone was outstanding. For the majority of the game, we looked more likely to win than game than not.”
But, he said: ‘’Timmy was Timmy. He was outstanding. I told him I wanted this to be his best World Cup. I said he was going to be a handful for any opposition. I am really delighted for him. ‘’
There was one more heartbreak to add to the tale: Tim Cahill had picked up a yellow card, his second in consecutive games. He would miss the third and final group stage match against Spain. Many thought that the then 34-year old Cahill had played his final World Cup game.
“It is what it is. I leave everything on the pitch,” Cahill said. “It was an amazing performance. We knew this was a chance. We thought we could win this game. We got close. We’ll earn a lot of respect from today’s game.”
The Socceroos’ campaign came to a sad end against Spain in a 3-0 loss. But it wasn’t Cahill’s last appearance in a World Cup. Postecoglou guided the team to Russia 2018, with Cahill scoring his 50th goal in the green and gold along the way. Postecoglou, burned out from the gruelling qualifying slog, stepped down before the tournament, with Bert van Marwijk taking the reins – and handing 38-year-old Cahill one final shot at the great dance, off the bench in the opener against Peru.
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Cahill came close to scoring, but couldn’t find the back of the net. And in the rest of the tournament (with Cahill left on the bench), Australia’s two goals – one against Denmark to secure a draw, and one against eventual champions France – both came in the form of Mile Jedinak penalties. It means that, eight years on, Cahill’s miraculous volley is the last Socceroos goal at a World Cup scored from open play.
It’s a record the legend is hoping comes to an end this week – and he’s doing everything he can to help the current Socceroos. The squad is based at the Aspire Academy in Doha, where Cahill is the Chief Sports Officer and spends his days scouting and developing Qatari youth talents. But the Australian icon isn’t just playing host to his countrymen – he’s played a key role in their World Cup preparations as the newly-announced Head of Delegation, and even laced up his boots on the training ground.
Many of the young Socceroos grew up idolising Cahill, just as he idolised the great van Basten.
Cameron Devlin told media in Qatar: “I remember sitting on my couch back home with my Dad and my little brother watching it. From what I remember Netherlands that just scored and it was off the kickoff, a long ball from (Ryan) McGowan.
“It’s probably no surprise to say that he‘s (Cahill) come up with something like that because so many times he did that for our country and not only for the country but at club level as well.”
Cahill scored 50 times for the Socceroos, a record that may never be broken. Until recently it was also an Australian international record, before the Matildas’ talismanic captain Sam Kerr came along.
But for Cahill, if the new crop of Socceroos can emulate his World Cup scoring feats – just as he emulated van Basten on that sunny afternoon in Porto Alegre – it will be just as sweet as being on the pitch himself.