AL RAYYAN, Qatar -- Deep down, Australians knew they had very little chance in Saturday's round of 16 meeting against Argentina. It was as great a meeting between David and Goliath as the World Cup has ever seen, after all. And France had already given the Socceroos a lesson about what lurks in the tournament's land of the giants.
That was, at least, until a few started to believe anyway.
There wasn't any rhyme or reason to it, really, certainly not any sort of deep technical and tactical analysis of the two sides or how they matched up against each other -- as the 2-1 scoreline would ultimately show. Instead, it was almost kind of a horseshoe effect in action, wherein the odds of defeat became so crushingly overwhelming that, in some form of elaborate coping mechanism, a number began to bend to the opposite direction and convinced themselves that this was their moment.
Never mind that the Socceroos had been outshot by a 2-to-1 margin in the group stages and had the second-worst xG differential and pass completion rate of the 32 nations in Qatar during the group stages. But football is played on grass, not a spreadsheet -- just ask Germany how much a positive xG differential is worth.
You don't need stats or facts when you have destiny. Australia, after all, was the land of accidental Winter Olympics gold medalist Steven Bradbury, the shock 1983 America's Cup win and numerous other great sporting upsets that may or may not have anything to actually do with football, after all. Surely the footballing gods couldn't resist the prospect of little old Australia, a footballing minnow tucked away in the bottom corner of the world, somehow producing the greatest upset in World Cup history?
Perhaps that's a bit of the "Aussie DNA" that coach Graham Arnold has placed at the core of his coaching philosophy. This stubborn refusal to bow to reason and, through sheer intransigence, replace reality with one's own more favourable one.
It all sounds good, very appealing for the neutral that craves a narrative and deeper meaning to a contest that otherwise shapes as more an approximation of a lamb to the slaughter. And for a while it looked like, maybe, the footballing gods were listening. But when Argentina has what might be the closest thing to a divine avatar on Earth wearing the No. 10 shirt, it turns out any whims of the football gods can be quickly counteracted.
For vast stretches before Lionel Messi's 35th-minute goal, he'd been largely a peripheral figure. Nothing like the untouchable and at times indescribable force of nature that he had come to be known as across his previous 999 appearances for club and country. Instead, he looked as defender Milos Degenek had described him days earlier, human.
Indeed, Argentina as a whole seemed curiously distant, dominating possession but still looking like they'd left a part of themselves back in the dressing room. This might have been the direct result of them coming into the fixture on effectively two proper night's rest but it was nonetheless welcomed by their highly unfancied opponents.
Across spells of possession that lasted for minutes at a time, Argentina would knock the ball one way and the other around the green and gold shirts before them, but rarely try to go through them. Australia could hardly maintain possession of the ball for longer than 10 seconds at a time across the opening half an hour but, at the same time, only had to watch on as Argentina sent one shot in on goal: a long-range, 17th-minute effort from Papu Gomez that sailed harmlessly over the bar.
With every passing moment without conceding, every attack repelled and every tackle laid, the Socceroos grew in confidence. Unlike against France, they weren't being blown away. Little spells on the ball of their own began to develop, a few set pieces were won, and Harry Souttar had Australia's first effort on goal from a corner in the 29th minute. They were a long way from scoring, but as they'd shown against Tunisia and Denmark, they only needed one thing to go right.
But then Aziz Behich did a silly thing. He got mad and then he gave away a free kick. And he got Messi mad. Getting the second ball after Australia failed to clear, Messi slid the ball to Alexis Mac Allister, who in turn knocked it to Nicolas Otamendi at the top of the box. With the classic touch of a central defender, the ball ricocheted away from Otamendi and to the feet of Messi, who had found a yard of space away from Keanu Baccus. But a yard of space, a single pocket of room, is all this magician needs. As four defenders closed him down, one of the greatest to ever do it laced a shot into the bottom corner of Mat Ryan's net and wheeled away in celebration. His 789th goal secured in his 1000th game.
A second Argentina goal would then come in the 57th minute. As Australia looked to play out from the backline, Rodrigo De Paul pressed. And then he pressed again. Kye Rowles panicked and played a quick ball back to Ryan, whose heavy touch was swallowed by Julian Alvarez for the second. 2-0 Argentina. Surely, the killer blow. Australia was not coming back from that. Two errors. Two moments in time, a yard of space left uncovered and a moment of panic exploited.
But perhaps that's when the "Aussie DNA" came to the fore? Maybe this is all reading far too much into things and what happened next says a lot more about Argentina than anything else. But when you've been following this team for weeks on end, and heard every single player and coach talk time and time again about the ethos that is guiding them, you couldn't help but wonder.
In the 77th minute, Behich sent in a high looping ball that was knocked clear only as far as the newly introduced Craig Goodwin and was sent back in with venom. It didn't matter that it looked more destined for the corner flag than the net because before it could so it clattered off Enzo Fernandez and into the net.
Three minutes later, Behich went on a winding run that recalled some famous goals from Messi himself before his strike was desperately deflected away. Was there contact on Behich's boot prior to the shot? The football gods -- and more importantly the referee -- deemed play on.
"Us Aussies, we like the hard way," Awer Mabil had said on the eve of the tournament. "I would say grit, actually, that's the DNA we have. Never giving in."
In the end, though, it wouldn't be enough. With one final throw of the dice and just seconds left, the ball fell to Garang Kuol, the teenage sensation who has yet to start a senior league game, but whose game-breaking abilities had earned him a spot in the Socceroos squad anyway, only for his effort to be blocked by Martinez.
Now, Australia is going home. But even with defeat, they can't be said to be doing so with their tails between their legs. After flying to Qatar with expectations that could be generously described as somewhere between fleeting and outright non-existent, the Socceroos somehow found a way to the knockout stages for just the second time in the weeks that followed. They united the nation behind them and turned getting up in the dead of the night to watch them at a live site, pub, or local club into a cultural event.
And there was no shame in Saturday evening's defeat. No embarrassment. Just a group of players that gave it their everything and, for just a single moment, just maybe, got the world believing.