Soccer  

Australia inspire as Mat Leckie seals World Cup knockout spot

AL-WAKRAH, Qatar — It defies all reason but Australia, little old Australia, a footballing minnow tucked away in the bottom corner of the world, are moving on to the World Cup round of 16 for the second time in their history.

Mat Leckie, a kid that grew up wanting to play a different sport, scored the goal that secured a famous 1-0 win over Denmark and guaranteed Australia’s place in the knockout stages. And cemented his place as a legend of Australian football.

Despite looking like he was on the verge of collapse after running himself into the ground in prior games against France and Tunisia, it was Leckie, in the game in which he and goalkeeper Mat Ryan equalled Australia’s record for the most-ever appearances at a World Cup, that stood up when it mattered most and ensured that they will now surpass Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill’s mark.

On the hour mark at the Al Janoub Stadium, just moments after word filtered through that Tunisia had taken a shock 1-0 lead over France and that, as it stood, the Socceroos were going home, the Melbourne City attacker burst forward as his side looked to break quickly in transition.

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With Denmark needing to win to keep their World Cup alive, the number of red shirts being thrown forward meant that pockets of space were there to exploit. So, running onto an inch-perfect pass into space from Riley McGree, Leckie danced one way and then the other before, just when it looked like he’d taken one touch too many, he drove an effort into the bottom corner of Kasper Schmeichel’s goal. Cue pandemonium.

At Al Janoub, the pockets of Australian fans, who had been cursing the French just moments before, were sent into raptures. In Leckie’s hometown of Melbourne, Federation Square was a mass of ecstatic limbs and blanketed in the smoke and glow from dozens of flares. The concrete cavern in Melbourne’s heart, carved out of the old railway yards by the banks of Yarra River to serve as a congregation point and cultural centre, has come to symbolise the sudden deep love affair that broader Australia had developed with its men’s national team. On this night, at 3.30 a.m. local time, there was not a place in the world that could match its energy.

Eight years ago in Brazil, Leckie was part of the wave of fresh faces brought into the national setup by coach Ange Postecoglou as part of his efforts to reinvigorate and refresh a squad that was increasingly ageing as a ‘Golden Generation’ — a generation that Leckie, who grew up in an Australian Rules Football following household, had made him fall in love with football. Now in 2022, the 31-year-old was in Qatar as one of the squad’s most-experienced heads, helping to foster a new generation brought into the squad by Graham Arnold.

The day before the game, however, he had spoken of his desire to not just make an impact on the likes of Keanu Baccus, Riley McGree, or Harry Souttar, but to fill the same kind of role that Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill had played for him 16 years prior.

“When I was younger, growing up in an AFL environment with my family, one thing that did bring my family to follow football was the national team and the World Cup,” he explained. “It’s huge for the sport … I’m sure when [kids] watch the telly, they see the atmosphere and how big the World Cup is, it could be just one of those things that clicks in their head and [they say] ‘I want to be a footballer, rather than an AFL player or something like that.’”

With Australia now set to progress to the round of 16 for just the second time in their history and winners of two games at a World Cup for the first time ever, it’s impossible to imagine that Leckie hasn’t done that. The next time an Aussie kid scores a goal in a park, at school, or in the backyard, they will undoubtedly mark the occasion by wheeling away and pounding their chest in the same manner that Australia’s No. 7 did.

Had he been born a decade and a half later, midfielder Jackson Irvine probably would have been one of those kids. As a youngster, he was in the crowd watching on as the Golden Generation made history; kickstarting a love affair with the Socceroos’ shirt that has now seen him, 16 years on, match that feat.

“I hope [we’ve inspired]. We were speaking about that just earlier,” said Irvine. “Being that kid at 13 years old in 2006, being there in the crowd watching those players do what I hope we’ve done for a group of kids tonight.

“To show Australian kids that Australian footballers, we can play at this level, we can compete at this level and it’s possible. I’m immensely proud to have hopefully given somebody else that inspiration.”

As the years progress, it will not only be remembered as a goal that ensured that the Golden Generation has company in Australian football folklore, but also the strike that caused a new generation of boys and girls to fall in love with the game; dreaming of being just like Leckie against Denmark.