The football powerhouse of Samoa will forever regret their failure to keep hold of Tim Cahill.
Born in Sydney to a half-English, half-Irish father and a Samoan mother, Cahill represented a Samoan youth team at a regional U20 championships in 1994. He was later contacted by Mick McCarthy about representing Ireland at the 2002 World Cup, but was ineligible because of his two appearances for Samoa.
FIFA changes to eligibility rules in 2004 gave Cahill a plethora of national team choices: he could have represented Samoa, Ireland, England or Australia. Had Cahill not chosen the Socceroos, the history of football in his homeland would have been irrevocably altered – and not for the better.
To English Premier League fans, Cahill might be known for his aerial prowess – his vertical leap is impressive for someone on the short side of six foot – and somewhat obnoxious goal celebrations. Millwall and Everton fans remember him dearly: he cumulatively made over 500 appearances for the two clubs with more than 100 goals to show for it. But in Australia, Cahill is undoubtedly the single most important national team player of the past generation.
At their opening match of the 2006 World Cup, Australia were trailing Japan with less than 10 minutes remaining when Cahill bagged a brace. Not only were these goals the first ever scored by Australia at a World Cup – the nation’s only previous World Cup experience in 1974 ended goalless – but they single-handed lifted Australia to the best possible start.
That momentum helped the Socceroos ride out a 2-0 loss to Brazil, before they earned a draw against Croatia that saw the team through to the round of 16. While that penalty in the 95th minute against Italy sent Guus Hiddink’s Australia packing, the 2006 World Cup was a high point in Australian football history.
Cahill played a pivotal role for the Socceroos in qualification for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, securing key goals at vital moments. He then netted against Serbia in South Africa, and scored twice in Brazil – including a wonder-strike against Holland (you must watch this. Really, you must).
Despite his advancing years, Cahill was again instrumental during the qualification road for Russia. His impact on the team was stark at the 2017 Confederations Cup – a rare start against Chile saw Cahill lift the team to a creditable draw, with Australia the better team against the South American champions then-ranked fourth in the world.
Cahill’s role has naturally evolved, and it is unlikely he will start at the 2018 World Cup. If he makes the pitch at all, it will be as a substitute late in the match when Australia is chasing a goal. But Cahill’s impact off the pitch should not be under-estimated. With several inexperienced young players in the Socceroos squad – including wonderkid Daniel Arzani, a one-cap 19-year-old – Cahill’s leadership and mentoring could prove invaluable.
“For me just being here now means so much to me,” he said at a press conference this week. “I have put so much effort in over the last year or so to be here. To get on the pitch would be one step; to score would just be amazing.”
With group stage matches against star-studded France, the Christian Eriksen-led Denmark and a Peru side desperate for success at their first World Cup in 36 years, the odds do not look good for Australia in Russia. Indeed an Australian resources academic turned his statistical model, typically used in the oil and gas sector, onto the World Cup. He found that Australia had a 0.1% chance of winning the tournament and only a 14% likelihood of group stage progression.
But then again, the odds have never favoured Australia – and that has not stopped Cahill before.
The veteran forward played down the possibility of a post-tournament retirement on Thursday: “We train today. We train the day after and then we play France. That is all that’s in my mind”. But at 38 – the fourth oldest player at the 2018 World Cup – Cahill is destined to hang up his boots sooner rather than later.
If he finds the net over the next two weeks, Cahill will join Pele, Miroslav Klose and Uwe Seeler as the only players to have scored in four World Cup. Illustrious company for a true icon of Australian football.