As soon as the ball went into the net after a dazzling series of dribbles in front of a renowned defence, Mathew Leckie knew that his name will be forever enshrined into Australia’s history.
In a country known better by their rugby or cricket teams, which are sports infinitely more popular than football, the “Socceroos” definitely gained some new fans and probably helped more children try and learn the basics, after their excellent performances at Qatar 2022.
In fact, this was only the second time when Australia progressed to the knockout phases at the FIFA World Cup, after having already broken their duck in 2006, when they were eliminated in the Round of 16 by the future champions, Italy.
This time, another powerhouse will be waiting there, Argentina, but this generation of the “Socceroos” has definitely lightened up the imagination, with pyro going off at 3:00 AM in Melbourne after their win against Denmark, 1-0, which propelled them into the next round at Qatar 2022.
The chief responsible? Mathew Leckie, a journeyman that can play anywhere in the front line, is featuring at the third edition of the FIFA World Cup and duly entered the lore of Australian football.
But his career could have been totally different because as a kid, he only wanted to become an Aussie Rules player. A short explainer? Australian football, or Aussie rules, is a contact sport played between two teams of 18 players on an oval field, often a modified cricket ground. Points are scored by kicking the oval ball between the central goal posts (worth six points), or between a central and outer post (worth one point, otherwise known as a “behind”).
Yet a change of school meant that Leckie, who had new friends that inspired him to take on football, meant his destiny changed forever.
Gone were the days when he went to the ground with his parents to support the Essendon Bombers and the Box Hill Hawks, and football was everything that he could think of.
“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.”
“You watch the games on television and you see the atmosphere. How big the World Cup is could be just one of those things that clicks in their heads and says ‘I want to be a footballer rather than an AFL player’. The World Cup and the Socceroos really bring the nation together,” said Leckie in a press conference prior to the match against Denmark.
Indeed, Australia’s journey to Qatar 2022 was nothing short of inspiring. They finished third in their group in the Asian qualifications, which meant that Australia needed to beat two teams to progress to the final tournament.
First, it was a do-or-die game against the United Arab Emirates, which they won, 2-1, qualifying to the decider against Peru, played in Qatar in June 2022. With the last berth to the 2022 FIFA World Cup on the line, the two sides entered in a closed clash, which was decided on penalties.
With a 5-4 win, Australia took the Qatar 2022 berth and the mood in the squad was superb. One that kept going even after their tough loss against France, 1-4, in the first clash of the tournament, that could have seen the “Socceroos” out.
They bounced back with two 1-0 wins against Tunisia and Denmark, making this the second team in history to progress to the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup after 2006 one.
“When the Socceroos got out of the group in ’06, I was a proud fan. And now we have the opportunity to be players and do that. We can create something special, as the ’06 team did,” said Leckie.
Indeed they did, with back-to-back wins, with the attacking midfielder scoring the decisive goal. It was an apt finish from a player that had plenty of European experience, featuring for German teams like Borussia Monchengladbach, FSV Frankfurt, FC Ingolstadt 04, and Hertha BSC between 2011 and 2021.
Leckie came back in 2021 to Australia, featuring for powerhouse Melbourne City, but has not missed a beat, with his form picking up at the right time and the No.10 peaking exactly at the perfect moment.
“In the celebration you saw the emotion. I didn’t know what to do, I was just pounding my chest. Once the boys got together, the whole bench was there and I think I got slapped in the head a hundred times. The team we are, if you’re starting or on the bench or not getting any game time everyone is here for each other,” said Leckie.
Now a date with destiny awaits, as Australia faces Argentina in the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022. And destiny really has some funny moments up its sleeve. The game will be played at the same “Ahmad bin Ali Stadium” in Al Rayyan, where Australia got their tickets for the tournament against another South American team, Peru, a few months ago.
History in the making?