Cahill’s long and winding road to greatness

If he hasn't been assured already, Tim Cahill will know in the next few days whether he will get the chance to achieve what has, for the past four years, become his main ambition: to play, and score, in a fourth World Cup.

Assuming he gets the nod – and an injury cloud over Tomi Juric in the Socceroos' training camp makes it increasingly likely – then Cahill would be in rare air indeed.

Less than a handful of men have managed to play and score in four World Cups: the man lauded as the greatest of all, Pele, and the great German strikers Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose.
For a player like Cahill to get the chance to join them would be, perhaps, comparable to a batsman in Test cricket getting close to Don Bradman's extraordinary average of 99.94.

Tim Cahill is closing on a rare World Cup achievement.

Photo: AP

It's all the more remarkable given that Cahill didn't play his first game for the Socceroos until he was 24 and making a name in his first incarnation at Millwall. To say it's been a long and winding road is an understatement, and on the cusp of what could be a momentous occasion, its worth reflecting on how he got there, and what the highlights have been.

Early on, Cahill was a victim of FIFA's then policy over national affiliation, that once a player had turned out for a country in a competitive match he was tied to it, no matter the age that had occurred.


He had lived for some years in Samoa, the nation of his mother's birth, before returning to Sydney as a child, but his decision to turn out for an under-20 Samoan side was taken without regard for the consequences. Cahill, at 14, was playing with and against lads much older.

"They asked if I would take part, even though I was only 14 at the time and it was an under-20 tournament. I saw it simply as a chance to go on holiday because my grandmother was ill at the time in Samoa. It was a chance to go back and see her on expenses as the Samoans were paying for all my flights, accommodation and living expenses. I could not have cared less about playing for them. It was a men's tournament and I never expected to play,'' he said later.

But the ramifications were severe. He wasn't considered for any of Australia's junior sides and it was partially through a long campaign waged by Fairfax soccer writer, the late Mike Cockerill – and others around the world – that FIFA decided to change its national qualification ruling and allow players to change allegiance in certain circumstances.

Cahill had to wait until 2004, in a game in which the Frank Farina-coached Socceroos took on South Africa in England, to make his debut, having rejected approaches from the Republic of Ireland, whose manager Mick McCarthy had been keen to consider him for the 2002 World Cup. Ireland's loss was Australia's gain.

Cahill may not be the best player to wear the green and gold (most pundits would plump for Mark Viduka or Harry Kewell) but there is no doubt that he is the greatest Socceroo. A record number of goals (50) and more than 100 caps are testament to his ability and longevity.

Although there will be plenty of critics who will point to his lack of game time in the past six months since quitting Melbourne City ,and argue that he shouldn't be in the squad, Bert van Marwijk has consistently said, in what looks like a preparation for his inclusion, that some players are special cases.

I wasn't there for Cahill's debut in west London more than 14 years ago, but I have been at almost all his significant games for the Socceroos and can understand why, even if lacking current form, a coach would want to include him just on his record alone.

Japan's players watch as Tim Cahill's first goal goes in, in the World Cup in 2006 in Germany.

Photo: AP

Often Cahill doesn't appear to be doing much in games and doesn't make the obvious runs. He doesn't really dribble past people, he is certainly not renowned for his passing game, and more often than not his tackles turn into fouls. Quite often he appears to be having little impact: and then, bang, he pops up in the right place at the right time to telling effect.

It has happened too often for it to be a coincidence.

Coming off the bench at Kaiserslautern in Germany in 2006, his first goal to equalise against Japan restored Australia's World Cup hopes, and his second, to put the team up 2-1, gave those yellow-shirted fans the right to dream that a miracle might be possible.

He scored Australia's late equaliser in a group game against Oman to keep an eventually benighted initial Asian Cup foray in 2007 afloat.

And who could forget that extraordinary volley against the Netherlands in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2014, that thumping drive that defied physics to smash off the crossbar and into the net?

Even last year, when he scored that brace against Syria to bring Australia through their nerve-wracking Asian play-off to win a place against Honduras in the last game en route to Russia, the venerable Cahill was making a contribution.

On form he wouldn't be in Russia. And he has hardly endeared himself to fans in the past six months, walking out on Melbourne City when he lost out in a power play with coach Warren Joyce and the club, a departure that left a bitter taste and did his reputation no good at all.

But if he is selected for Russia, and does score, then most will forgive and forget.

I was there when he scored his first goals for Australia in an Oceania championship that doubled as World Cup qualifiers in the winter of 2004 in a round-robin tournament in Adelaide. Cahill got two goals in a 9-0 romp against Tahiti and has continued on, by and large, what he began that day.

If I am there when he scores what will surely be his last, it will be a far more memorable occasion.

Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch, The Age's expert on soccer, has had extensive experience of high level journalism in the UK and Australia. Michael has covered the Socceroos through Asia, Europe and South America in their past three World Cup campaigns. He has also reported on Grands Prix and top class motor sport from Asia and Europe. He has won several national media awards for both sports and industry journalism.

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