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DOHA, Qatar — It was a World Cup full of surprises, but this one was a turning point. Two surprises – huge ones too – happening at exactly the same time.
Group D came to a thrilling conclusion on Wednesday as defending champions France were beaten 1-0 by Tunisia, while Australia clinched a place in the last 16 by knocking out European Championship semi-finalists Denmark by the same scoreline.
France’s setback was a little more understandable when you consider manager Didier Deschamps’ decision to drop stars Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Greizmann and several other starters from his starting line-up, with qualification assured and top of the group all but assured.
For Australia, the road to qualification was even more dramatic, with a Matt Leckie goal in the second half giving the footballers a second straight win and a shot at the elimination rounds.
Few saw it coming. Once the tie was made it looked like it was destined to be one of the straightest groups, a straight fight between the two European sides, with Denmark considered solid outsiders to win the whole tournament after their impressive Euro performance.
With the two games being played simultaneously, the news filtered between the stadiums by various technological means. One of the most enduring memories of the World Cup may well be Tunisia’s substitutes crammed into a smartphone to watch footage of the other game as time ticked by.
As it turned out, the critical moments came within minutes of each other.
First, Tunisia took the lead against France, Ellyes Skhiri winning the ball in midfield and setting up captain Wahbi Khazri for a smooth finish.
As things were, it would have been enough to get Tunisia through – but it didn’t last long. On cue, Leckie got the ball in Denmark’s penalty area with plenty to do, but he slid this way and that, then left-footed shot into the bottom corner and past Kasper Schmeichel.
There have already been a number of notable triumphs by Asian and North African teams; Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Japan beat Argentina, Belgium and Germany respectively. This one-two – Australia plays in the Asian region for FIFA purposes – was every bit as extraordinary as the one that preceded it.
For the Tunisians, it was a mixture of pride and disgust as they ended up lamenting their disappointing loss to Australia in the second game. At least they had the consolation of hanging on to win here, even after Mbappé and Greizmann were introduced late.
Greizmann looked to have scored in stoppage time, and after Australia’s result, he had already eliminated Tunisia, but his shot was disallowed for offside.
For Australians, pure joy, and why not?
Going into the tournament, Australia were widely regarded as one of the weaker teams, having narrowly scraped through the event thanks to an Asian playoff, then an intercontinental playoff against Peru, won in a penalty shoot-out.
It doesn’t matter. They are here now, and they are still here and others leave around them. Proof once again, if need be, that the World Cup has no time for custom or predictability.
Or, it seems, by reputation.
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