When Tim Cahill was substituted on against Peru on Tuesday with the Socceroos trailing, one memory instantly came to mind for Australian fans.
The last time the Socceroos had won a World Cup match after conceding the opening goal was at Germany 2006. The Australians were 1-0 down against Japan in the 84th minute when a 24-year-old – who had only made his national team debut two years earlier – rose to the occasion. Tim Cahill equalised and then found a winner just six minutes later, giving Australia three points that would prove critical – they went on to qualify for the round of 16 for the first time ever.
In Sochi, it was an even bigger mountain to climb. Despite having few opportunities, the Peruvians were leading 2-0 and spurred on by a largely white and red-clad crowd. But following the introduction of master Cahill and his attacking apprentice, the youngest player at the tournament Daniel Arzani, Australian fans dared to dream.
There would be no fairy-tale ending for the Socceroos. Cahill charged around energetically but lacked the potency he was once feared for, while 19-year-old Arzani – impressive during his cameos against France and Denmark – struggled to have the same impact. With the signs of fatigue showing in their team-mates after three matches in 10 days, neither Cahill nor Arzani could lift Australia to an improbable win.
Eliminated from the World Cup, the Socceroos head home to face an uncertain future. 38-year-old Cahill was adamant during the tournament that he had not contemplated retirement, but it must be on the cards soon. Stalwart midfielder and latterly defender Mark Milligan is rumoured to be retiring from international football. Captain Mile Jedinak has been troubled by injury in recent years and may look to call time on his sterling Socceroos stint to preserve his club career with Aston Villa. If all three bid farewell to the green and gold jersey, it would be a major blow on and off the pitch; Milligan and Jedinak are both starters, Cahill is the team’s talisman and all three bring immense experience.
Short-term manager Bert van Marwijk also departs the national team set-up – the Dutchman was brought in at the beginning of the year solely with the World Cup in mind. He will be replaced by Graham Arnold, formerly of Sydney FC in Australia’s domestic A-League. Arnold has been in charge of the Socceroos before and endured a turbulent reign, but has considerably more experience under his belt more than a decade later.
Arnold’s first challenge will be the Asian Cup, in January in the United Arab Emirates. Australia are reigning champions, but face a tough task defending their crown with transition in both the playing squad and at managerial level. The Socceroos have just a handful of friendlies in store between now and the tournament, hardly enough time for Arnold to impose a coherent tactical framework on a team that has swung from the expansive football of Ange Postecoglou to the conservative pragmatism of van Marwijk.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing said by van Marwijk during his short tenure, a reign characterised by frosty press conferences and opaque answers, came following the Peru match. Despite a storied managerial career, which included leading his own nation to the World Cup final in 2010, the Dutchman admitted that he would cherish his time with Australia.
“I learned from them,” said the 66-year-old. “I learned also from their mentality and the way they improved. You do not see that often at this level. I hope that maybe they learned something in the last two months. You can learn from good things and bad things. But for me it was a fantastic period – I will never forget it.” The Socceroos will never be a team of world-beaters. But that willingness to learn gives reason for optimism as fans head home from Russia disappointed.
Australian football will miss Cahill. Next time the team is a goal or two down in an important match, the Socceroos faithful will still think back to that encounter with Japan in 2006. But time marches on. While the Socceroos face a difficult period ahead, their fans must hope that in Arzani – or perhaps another current youth prospect – they have someone who might one day write their own name into history. They must trust that, contrary to a common chant, there is not only one Timmy Cahill.