Opinion

A decade of wonder goals, amazing feats and feelgood stories

Tim Cahill celebrates his wonder goal against the Netherlands. Source: Getty Images

Football and controversy are never too far apart in Australia yet the decade that is drawing to a close has rewarded this country's loyal followers with some of the most memorable and exhilarating moments in the history of our game.

Despite the major problems that continue to hinder the game's progress, football's ability to survive against all the odds due to its special qualities came to the rescue once again.

These are some of the highlights from 2011 onwards that made the world game such a unique spectacle in our own unique environment. 

The classic matches

Eighty thousand noisy and expectant fans were at Homebush for the 2015 Asian Cup final between Australia and Korea Republic. There was not much separating both teams in the first half but a few minutes after the break Massimo Luongo hit home a placed shot that was neutralised by a last-gasp goal from Korean star Son Heung-min. The Socceroos kept their nerve in extra time before they clinched the title with a goal from substitute James Troisi. It was a superb match between two quality teams and played in the best of spirit.

Australia were given little chance of upsetting the Netherlands in a group match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The Dutch took the lead with a goal from Arjen Robben but the Australians showed they were not going down without a fight when Tim Cahill made it 1-1 with a 'worldie'. The Socceroos even had the audacity to take the lead with a penalty from Mile Jedinak but a combination of inexperience and misfortune consigned them to a narrow 3-2 defeat. To their credit, the Socceroos provided the Dutch with much stiffer opposition than world champions Spain did in an earlier match when they crashed 5-1.

The 2011 grand final between Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners at a jam-packed Suncorp had more twists and turns than a Poirot plot. Ninety minutes of quality football from both sides failed to produce a goal but in extra time all hell broke loose. Adam Kwasnik and Oliver Bozanic stunned the local crowd with two goals but Henrique gave Brisbane a lifeline by side-footing the ball in with less than five minutes left. With 50,000 boisterous fans firmly behind them, Brisbane saved the game with a last-gasp goal from Erik Paartalu. Ange Postecoglou's men went on to win their first championship after a shootout.

Western Sydney Wanderers' semi-final 5-4 victory over Brisbane in 2016 is widely regarded as one of the grandest and most captivating matches in the A-League's history. Brisbane appeared to have wrapped up the match when they stormed to a 3-0 lead after 23 minutes but Tony Popovic's Wanderers had other ideas. A glorious hat-trick from Romeo Castelen and a goal from Brendon Santalab overturned the score before Jamie Maclaren netted his second goal of the night to make it 4-4 and take the match into extra-time. The extraordinary match was settled by a goal from substitute striker Dario Vidosic.

The best teams

Brisbane and Sydney FC each won three championships in four seasons since 2011 and it is hard to separate them in terms of their strength, personnel and legacy.

While Brisbane introduced a 'playing out from the back' style based on possession that few teams could match, Sydney's relentless attack had most teams on the back foot for most of the time.

Led by the mercurial talents of the inimitable duo of Thomas Broich and Milos Ninkovic respectively, Brisbane and Sydney will go down as the most formidable teams of the decade.

The finest players

Brilliant Broich was the machine that made Brisbane roar with his peripheral vision and articulate distribution.

Nimble Ninkovic was perhaps less mechanical than the German but he certainly was more gifted and explosive and some of his numbers of individual class were a nightmare to handle and a joy to watch.

Besart Berisha came to Australia as un 'unknown' but will leave the A-League as the most clinical finisher in our game. He can look cumbersome sometimes but give him in inch and he'll put the ball in the net before you know it. He scored 135 goals in 213 appearances going into this season. 

Mat Ryan established himself as one of the finest Socceroos goalkeepers of his generation by playing with distinction in more than a hundred matches for Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League after a successful spell with FC Brugge in Belgium.

In the women's game, striker Sam Kerr has become Australia's most popular player and one of the world's best in her position. Kerr, who plays her club football for Chelsea, has almost singlehandedly raised the Matildas' profile to the sort of heights that would have been unimaginable at the turn of the century.

The smartest coaches

Postecoglou would have to be the most decorated coach in Australia's history. He masterminded two league championships for Brisbane amid nationwide acclaim in 2011 and 2012, led the Socceroos to their first major honour when they landed the 2015 Asian Cup and completed a dazzling decade by helping Yokohama F. Marinos to the Japanese championship in 2019. 

Graham Arnold took the A-League's smallest club Central Coast Mariners to the 2013 title and went one better four years later when he played a key role in Sydney's league and cup double. 'Arnie' will always be remembered for his willingness to give young players a chance to show what they can do.

Relatively inexperienced Kevin Muscat (Melbourne Victory) and Steve Corica (Sydney) deserve honourable mentions for winning two league titles. So does Popovic (Wanderers) for winning the 2014 AFC Champions League.

The greatest goals

Cahill's stunning goal against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup will live long in the memory of anybody lucky enough to have watched it. Meeting a lovely cross from Ryan McGowan, Cahill gave goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen no chance with a left-foot textbook volley that dipped into the net for one of the goals of the tournament.

Orlando Engelaar's wonder strike from well inside his own half in Melbourne Heart's match against the Mariners in 2014 will go down as one of the greatest goals in A-League history, same as Riley McGree's 'scorpion' strike for Newcastle Jets against Melbourne City in 2018 that went viral worldwide.

The individual heroics

Wanderers goalkeeper Ante Covic was in an unbeatable mood in the return leg of the 2014 ACL final. Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal threw everything at him in a desperate attempt to square the tie after losing thr first leg 1-0 but Covic denied the Saudis every time they threatened, particularly when he dived to his right to stop a goal-bound shot from Yasser Al-Qahtani. Covic's heroics gave his teammates the inspiration they needed to snare a momentous goalless draw.

Australia captain Jedinak scored a rare hat-trick in a final playoff against Honduras for a place in the 2018 World Cup ... not bad for a defensive midfielder. After a goalless draw in the first leg, Jedinak displayed nerves of steel to slot home two pressure penalties and a deflected free kick to give the Socceroos a 3-1 victory.

Sydney's Alessandro del Piero was at his devastating best when he helped himself to three sensational goals and even slotted home a penalty for good measure in Sydney's 7-1 demolition of Wellington Phoenix in 2013. It was a performance that reminded us of what a magnificent player he was when at his peak.

The feelgood stories

The Socceroos' Asian Cup triumph on home soil will go down as a seminal moment in the country's football development. A 'multicultural feast' that was superbly run and enjoyed by thousands of football fans from disparate backgrounds provided many marvellous moments and reached its climax with Australia's 2-1 victory over old rivals Korea Republic.

The Wanderers stunned the football scene in this part of the world by reaching the ACL final against Al-Hilal in 2014 and emerging victorious. It was a classic fairytale from a club that did not even exist three years earlier. A goal by striker Tomi Juric in the first leg in Parramatta was the clincher.

The round-one Sydney derby between the Wanderers and Sky Blues at ANZ Stadium in 2016 drew a record crowd of 61,880 that were regaled with a master class from the Sky Blues, who won 4-0 with goals from Filip Holosko, Bobo, Brandon O'Neill and Alex Brosque. Football had arrived ... the sleeping giant had awoken ... or so we thought, anyway.

The Matildas will never get a better chance of landing the elusive World Cup after Australia and New Zealand were awarded hosting rights for 2023. The two countries managed to overcome stiff opposition from football's establishment to secure a global event that is growing so much in stature and appeal that it is now regarded as one of the great sporting events in the world. What must thrill Australian fans is the fact that the current Matildas with Kerr as the pin-up girl are strong enough to go very far in the tournament. Women's football is a picture of health in Australia.

After-thought: If men's and women's football had the capacity to provide so many uplifting stories in the past decade, why is our game in such a parlous state as we usher in yet another era? How on earth did it come to this?