AL WAKRAH, Qatar -- One of the more unfortunate laws of history is that, generally, it can only be made at the expense of others. For every winner, there must be a loser and for every conqueror, a vanquished. It's just the way that these things work.
But heroes and villains can be very relative, the unquestionable paragon and the moustachioed twirling cad just so passe these days. Instead, everyone's the protagonist of their own story. And it was this juxtaposition, this thin and subjective line that hovered over Australia's 1-0 win over Tunisia at the Al Janoub Stadium that kept the Socceroos' hopes of reaching the knockout phase of the World Cup alive.
Harry Souttar's gigantic performance, Mitch Duke's superbly guided header and Maty Ryan's desperate rear-guard action may now be set to take up a special place in the folklore of Australian football, but they'll also take up a position of infamy in Tunisia's mythos. Luckily Andrew Redmayne is also in the squad and can provide some advice on this based on his lived Peruvian experience.
As while it may seem perplexing to antipodean audiences that inevitably see the Socceroos as the lead character, on a broader global scale -- or at least the parts of the globe that weren't dismissing it as *just* Tunisia against Australia -- it was far easier to observe the Saturday afternoon's contest through a prism in which they occupied a far different and largely unfamiliar archetype: the antagonist.
Admittedly, as one of the stronger sides in the Asian Football Confederation, those in green and gold often fill this role in a more localised context (it's hard to assume anything other than the bully boy persona when you've been to five-straight World Cups and you're playing Nepal or the Northern Mariana Islands) but on the global stage of the World Cup, it's a far more novel experience. Still maturing as a football nation, normally it's them seeking to make some kind of history on the world stage, not serve as a spoiler for others' attempts.
And Tunisia were chasing history in Al Wakrah, with enough storylines around the pursuit to easily ensnare the neutral viewer into pulling for them to achieve it.
Though they were both the first African and the first team from an Arab nation to win a game at the World Cup when they defeated Mexico 3-1 at the 1978 tournament, the Eagles of Carthage have never made the round of 16 in their previous five appearances at the World Cup. A strong 0-0 draw with Denmark in their opening game, though, meant that a win would have put them in a strong position to secure a place in the knockout stages almost 50 years after their first appearance.
More than 55,000 Tunisians are living in Qatar, with many more having made the trip for the tournament, and their presence and noise have been impossible to miss. As an Arab country playing in the first Arab World Cup, Jalal Kadri's side has not just the support of their countrymen but from all across the region, and Saudi Arabia's win over Argentina showed how that can capture the imagination.
When it's all taken all together like that -- an unheralded nation looking for its moments in the sun for the first time and carrying the loud and passionate support of an entire region yearning for theirs -- it doesn't exactly require Billy Wilder-esque levels of talent to fashion a narrative that Tunisia were a team of destiny on the cusp of a fairy tale moment. Red meat for the masses yearning for reasons to care about two teams they absolutely wouldn't be watching if it wasn't for the World Cup.
Australia coach Graham Arnold probably doesn't care though. His players don't. In denying Tunisia their moment in the sun, securing his nation's first World Cup win since 2010, its third win ever at a World Cup and its first clean sheet since 1974, Arnold has instead seized control of the narrative and achieved his stated wish to put smiles on the faces of Australians from Steep Point to Cape Byron. Following France's win over Denmark later in the evening, his side likely now needs only a draw to secure their progression to the knockout stages for the first time in 16 years and just the second time overall.
As Duke's glancing header rippled the back of the net in Doha, fans half a world away that had made their way to live sites across Australia late in the evening were sent into pandemonium -- none more so than Federation Square in Melbourne, which quickly descended from a collection of individuals watching a big screen to a heaving, delirious mass of bodies bathed in the light and smoke of flares and sent into rapturous delirium.
"It's hard to even... I wish I was there as well," Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine, watching a video of the Federation Square celebrations on a journalist's phone, said. "I wish I could do both. That just looks absolutely incredible. I hope every single one of them has had a night they'll remember for the rest of their lives, like I've had as a fan. It's special."
Fed Square: that's the tweet. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/vT3JbuVDYv— Socceroos (@Socceroos) November 26, 2022
Of course, for all the good vibes surrounding the storylines, there was also a football match that took place. And if you didn't have a foot in either the Australian or Tunisian camps, there was little in it to justify a re-watch or an extended period of reflection on the intricacies of the two team's approaches.
Like two stray cats circling each other in an alley, both teams engaged in a shaky process of feeling each other out in the game's early stages; the sense of occasion and the stakes involved weighing on the minds of both. Touches were wayward, movement frenetic, and the rough and tumble nature of the game was established by both sides.
But then the defining moment of the game arrived when Australia's physical edge and control of the territory battle to that point was rewarded by Duke's well-taken 23rd-minute header; giving the Socceroos a vital early goal and placing the onus on the Tunisians to take the game on.
Spurred into action by the deficit, the Eagles of Carthage moved to monopolise possession -- a somewhat alien situation for them -- and desperately hurled themselves forward time and time again in search of an equaliser. Youssef Msakni came closest, but his side was unable to break through the desperate defensive efforts of Souttar, Ryan and the Australians.
"In the first half we did not play at the level we wanted to," said Kadri. "Australia dealt with us in a way we don't like, it played to its strong points that don't favour us. We possessed more of the midfield in the second half but in the end, we didn't see very clear opportunities."
Ultimately, as Kadri identified, it was far from pretty or incisive from either side: Tunisia managed 0.94 xG off 14 shots and Australia 0.61 off nine attempts. In place of driving into their foe's penalty areas -- until a late flurry by the Tunisians that forced Ryan into a series of sharp saves -- both sides frequently resorted to spamming crosses into the box, ending with 23 apiece.
At this World Cup, however, and under this coach and his values, Saturday was how Australia was always going to win its games: physicality, determination, commitment, and a chunk of luck along the way. Inevitably there's going to be a ceiling on how far this approach can take them -- it was able to scrape to a win against Tunisia but was no match for the combination of physicality and supreme technical ability of France -- and the next test will come against Denmark on Wednesday.
"I suppose we always talk about wanting to bring the quality on top of everything else but today it was about harnessing that fight and that spirit and we did that in abundance through the tackles, the drama, the moments that will be iconic in years to come," said Irvine.
Iconic indeed; a new chapter in both Australia and Tunisia's footballing histories.