There can be no more indispensable player to his national squad than Tim Cahill. Without him, the Aussies would be home for the World Cup, which is not a bad thing, given that Australia is a wonderful place to live and soccer is an afterthought to much of the citizenry.
But four years is an interminable wait between parties, so entering this tournament as the runt of the 32-team litter is preferable to not qualifying at all.
For the first 15 minutes of their opener, an eventual 3-1 loss to Chile, the Aussies emitted a just-happy-to-be-here scent. Chile bunched a pair of goals within a two-minute span, and any suspense seemed drained from the game.
But the Socceroos have Cahill, a paradox of sorts. Though 34, he is indefatigable on a roster of youngsters. Though 5-foot-10, he is most dangerous off the ground.
In the 35th minute, he pogo’ed above Chile’s back line for a laser header that made it 2-1. From then on, Chile hung on for dear life as Cahill was denied a penalty kick when impeded by a defender with a fistful of jersey, was judged offside to wipe out an apparent equalizer, headed the ball barely over the goal and, in the 88th minute, could not convert an enticing pass delivered in the penalty box.
With a third Chilean goal in injury time, a misleading score of 3-1 went into the books.
Cahill, the son of a Samoan mom and British dad, is long enough in the tooth to have notched the Aussies’ first-ever World Cup goal in 2006.
A sports hero in his homeland, he has built up enough cachet -- with, presumably, a bank account to match -- to have signed a below-market contract now worth $3.6 million this season to play for the New York Red Bulls in MLS. His hobbies include a clothing line, a slew of charities and all the activities that four kids can demand of his time.
But his dedication to the national team is unmistakable. And while the Socceroos might be scattering soon after games with ascendent Holland and desperate Spain, it is no stretch to envision Cahill back again in 2018, pushing 40 and pushing Australian soccer forward.