Soccer-Heartbroken Australia bow out with heads held high


Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Argentina v Australia - Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - December 3, 2022 Australia's Harry Souttar looks dejected after the match as Australia are eliminated from the World Cup REUTERS/Molly Darlington

DOHA (Reuters) - Australia's fairytale finally came to an end on Saturday but the unfancied and unheralded squad that headed to Qatar a few weeks ago will go home to a hero's welcome after going as far at a World Cup as any Socceroos team has ever been.

They fought to the bitter end in their 2-1 loss in the last 16 against Argentina on Saturday -- their fourth game in 12 days -- but were just unable to snatch an equaliser that would have taken the match to extra time.

"I just hope that everyone back in Australia really respects what we've done," said coach Graham Arnold. "I've got to be very, very proud of the boys. Just so grateful at the effort they've put in for me."

Indefatigable running, cohesiveness and pure Aussie grit had earned them back-to-back victories at the World Cup finals for the first time, surpassing even the hallowed 'Golden Generation' side of 2006.

This squad was not made up largely of English Premier League starters, however, but was a hotchpotch of A-League stalwarts, bench players and reserves in Europe's less glamorous leagues along with a couple plying their trade in Asia.

They just scraped into the tournament via two playoffs and departed for Qatar with the lowest expectations of any of the six Australia squads who have embarked on World Cup finals campaigns since 1974.

They made a brilliant start with a Craig Goodwin goal inside nine minutes of their opener with France but the doubters were soon vindicated as the world champions sidestepped Australia's central press and replied with four quality goals for a 4-1 win.

Something was brewing, however, and the Socceroos made their mark in their second fixture against a Tunisia side that had held Denmark to a goalless draw and would later beat a second-string France team.

A Mitch Duke header of the highest quality put Australia ahead and fierce 11-man defence from the forwards right through to skipper Mat Ryan in goal kept them there for a 1-0 win.

That would probably have been enough to take them home with faces saved but they were by no means done and a fine Mathew Leckie goal and some equally ferocious rearguard action saw them past Denmark 1-0 and into the knockout stages.

BIG CROWDS

In a country where football struggles for profile among more popular sports codes, the crowds that gathered early on Sunday morning in front of big screens for the Argentina match were alone a sign of success.

On an individual level, young players like central defender Harry Souttar and Goodwin have proved they can mix it with the best in the world.

Arnold, an assistant to Guus Hiddink in 2006, will rightly take huge credit for the campaign, having forged a tight-knit group together over a long and sometimes rocky qualifying campaign.

His much-voiced concern is that his method, refreshing the core of the team with players he coached when in charge of the under-23 team for the Tokyo Olympics, was a quick fix when what was needed was root-and-branch reform of player pathways.

"I have massive concerns for the future," he said before the Denmark match.

"The Socceroos are just the icing on the cake. That icing, whether it tastes good or bad, the most important thing is ingredients.

"And the ingredients are junior development and junior national teams. If that's not right, the icing will not taste very good."

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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