Australia advances to World Cup round of 16

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WAKRAH, Qatar — Australia barely wriggled into this World Cup like some gritty but gasping marsupial, while Denmark came in after recent heights as a sleek, fashionable pick to go far, but then there’s sports, and sports always reserve the right to take your assumptions and shove them clear to Sydney.

So it goes that Australia, a country which knows sports arguably better than any other, is going to the knockout stage and Denmark, the fetching Euro 2020 semifinalist, is not. So it went that the yellow-shirted Australian corner of the 41,232 in Al Janoub Stadium wound up reveling Wednesday night in the Socceroos’ 1-0 win over the Danes that featured more Danish possession but not all that much flukiness. And so it ended up that the public address wound up playing a merry “Down Under” after the whistle, even if it did feel odd to sit in a country mostly dry and ponder the lyric: “…where beer does flow and men chunder.”

A keen DJ in the PA booth followed it with “Waltzing Matilda,” forever touching.

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“I’m proud, exhausted, everything really,” Mathew Leckie, the Australian who scored the lone goal in the 60th minute, told the TV broadcasts afterwards. “It’s hard to describe the emotions right now… The last 15, 20 minutes, we battled until the end. It didn’t matter what they threw at us, we weren’t conceding.”

They weren’t conceding either back in Sydney and Melbourne et al, as various footage showed them reluctant to concede to sleep in their parties, another activity at which they excel as a culture.

Australia, an afterthought among afterthoughts in the 32-team field, finished a whoa of a second in Group D on six points alongside regal France, which had whacked Australia, 4-1, to grab the edge in goal difference. Australia will play the Group C winner, Argentina, very much not an afterthought, in the round of 16. It will play on with a proud manager, Graham Arnold, continuing the policies he described in TV interviews afterwards: “No celebrations, no emotion , sleep, no social media.” As it rides its fifth straight World Cup to its first knockouts since the first one, Australia will not mind if you pooh-pooh it once more.

It has been through some hell.

It needed drama just to get here. It had to nudge past the United Arab Emirates in the Asian playoff on a goal in the 84th minute. It had to outlast Peru in the intercontinental playoff on eccentric penalty kicks most noted for how a reserve Australian goalkeeper danced around with a fine fiendishness.

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Then it played the other side to the majesty of France, barely noticeable that night, but then beat Tunisia, 1-0, and then settled in against the Danes, defending well with Harry Souttar a bulwark in that vein. “I could see in their eyes,” Arnold said of the team he has managed since 2018 in a second stint at the helm, “that they were ready tonight.” The match lacked all that many glaring chances, but it did begin to seem as if Australia could win it outright on some compelling counterattack.

It won it on some compelling counterattack.

Before Denmark’s fans wound up sitting with a glumness they hadn’t expected, their side had begun to create some business near the Australian goal. It had come so far since star Christian Eriksen had collapsed with cardiac arrest during Euro 2021, resuscitated on the field that day, and now it had forged a few mild chances with young Andreas Skov Olsen, Mathias Jensen and the busy Jesper Lindstrom, among others . It had to press forward because, with its one point behind Australia’s three, a draw would not be enough.

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The counter came when Riley McGree, who plays for unglamorous Middlesbrough in the English second tier, sent a shrewd long pass for Leckie, who plays for unglamorous Melbourne City. Leckie was gone towards the goal, and it became a matter of Leckie against Joakim Maehle, regarded as a swell young defender for Atalanta in Italy.

Leckie twisted Maehle to and fro as help began to arrive, but then Leckie rolled a shot through Maehle, to the left of a lunging Danish goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel, and inside the right post. Right there, Denmark’s urgency turned to desperation, and Australia’s defense turned to great save for a few mild palpitations, and Leckie would end up appearing on an Australian morning show saying, “Now we just need to keep dreaming and we’ve got another game in a couple of days.” He spoke with an even keel even as the great cities back home had turned to delirium, and who would have known this band of qualifying stragglers would finish off a darling of the rugged European qualifying as it came to rest on one lonely point.

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The latest: France has already secured its spot in the knockout round, and three more nations will join Les Bleus on Wednesday. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, updates and highlights from the World Cup.

USMNT: Star forward Christian Pulisic scored in the first half and the US men’s national team defeated Iran, 1-0, at the World Cup in Qatar. By finishing second in Group B, the United States (1-0-2) earned a round-of-16 meeting Saturday with the Netherlands, which won Group A with a 2-0-1 record.

Tiebreakers and advancement scenarios: The World Cup’s 32 teams have started their third group-stage games, and the scenarios for advancement are now clear.

Outlook: “This moment — his moment — called for something more than finesse or creativity. It may not be brave or courageous, exactly, to charge at a soccer ball in the midst of heavy human traffic, risking personal injury, showing what athletic sacrifice means.” Read Barry Svrluga on Christian Pulisic’s moment on soccer’s biggest stage.

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