Wolf whistles pierced the pleasant winter afternoon as Australia stepped out for their warm-up routine ahead of Saturday’s 1-0 win against Tunisia. This is the Arab region’s first World Cup and with no guarantee of another in the near or distant future, they are here in droves. Among them in a tomato red Tunisia shirt outside Al Janoub Stadium was Mohammed.
He is from Baghdad, a two-hour flight away, said Mohammed who gave only one name. In English halting but clear, Mohammed said he got here on November 20 and would be here till November 30. “So far, I have watched six games among them France-Australia, Inglaterra-USA and will watch Espana and Germany tomorrow,” he said. There are many from Iraq in Doha now. “Football, you know,” said Mohammed, the smile and a hand on heart conveying what language failed.
With Luis Enrique’s former assistant at Spain Jesus Casas having taken charge earlier this month and given that players from Iraq are trying out clubs in “Europa”, not necessarily top clubs but “living and learning there”, Mohammed said he was hopeful of Iraq returning to the World Cup in 2026.
When that happens there will be no questioning his loyalties but now Mohammed said he was supporting “all teams from the area including Iran”. An Al Jazeera report said 40,000 fans have travelled from North Africa for the northern hemisphere’s first winter World Cup. Saudi Arabia have reported the third highest sale of tickets after Qatar and USA, many of them driving across the Abu Samra border. Many have come from Palestine too; their flags have been spotted at almost every stadium and spectators have been photographed wearing armbands in support of their cause. After Qatar were eliminated, Qataris have been quoted as saying in local media as saying they would now back teams from the region.
All this made Mitchell Duke’s strike as incongruous as fireworks preceding afternoon games. The contest was physical, even and often bruising but everything about the goal as a lesson in how to construct one collectively. Australia played out from inside their penalty area to the midfield where a cute Duke backheel found Riley McGree near the centre-circle. McGree passed to Craig Goodwin on the left and by the time Goodwin, who had struck early against France, sent a delivery, Duke had fetched up in the area. Goodwin’s ball took a deflection off a Tunisian player but there was nothing lucky about the flicked back header that arced beyond Aymen Dahmen’s goal.
Duke is 31 and plays for a team in J2 League in his second stint in Japan. In nine years since his debut for Australia, the central attacker in the frontline trio has made only 21 appearances and spent six years from 2013 out of the national team. To score a goal that got the sliver of Socceroos fans bouncing and in Australia’s first win in the finals since 2010 – and their third overall — is the kind of storyline only a World Cup can provide. The heroics of one journeyman, goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, kept Australia among the planet’s top 32 teams. Duke’s matchwinner has kept them breathing and ready for Denmark.
They were outnumbered by supporters of Tunisia but as those in red shirts trooped out, the ones in Socceroos’ yellow made the presence felt. One which was acknowledged by coach Graham Arnold and his squad.
“We are just some honest guys trying to do our best for the country and it is great to be part of history,” said Jamie McLaren in the mixed zone. “Obviously we are not going to get too carried on. The lid’s one. And we will get ready for Denmark.”
On the underrated forward ‘Dukey’, Mclaren said: He brings physicality to the game and you saw how the Tunisian central defenders were rattled. He really held his own and scored a cracking goal. Really happy for him, he is a hard-working guy who has probably had it tough moving around clubs but he has always found a way to get what he deserves and tonight showed that.”