Mile Jedinak *(captain)*
In defeat, some regret; but much dignity. When the Socceroos were drawn to play Chile in the refitted Arena Pantanal's first match of this World Cup many were expecting Australia to be on the end of a hiding.
But where for much of a slow, startle-eyed opening 20 minutes Australia looked likely to make good on those dire predictions, in the 70 minutes that followed there was much that the coach, Ange Postecoglou, will rightly see as immensely encouraging.
Chile were good to their promise of unflagging, almost irrational, attack, the outstanding front two of Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sánchez racing forward at every opportunity with something like a primal lust for goal.
But the Australians, once they settled, found their rhythm around Matthew Leckie, Mark Bresciano and the ageless Tim Cahill, and for much of the second half an equaliser looked likely. It was close, so close, and for Australia the feeling will surely remain of an opportunity missed – despite the Chileans' third goal, which added a gloss to their victory unreflective of the course of the game as a whole. But it is no shame to have lived and lost when you have lived so beautifully.
Before a ferociously red crowd, in which the Australian fans, scattered throughout the stadium in little blobs of yellow, struggled to assert themselves in any meaningful way, the Chileans started with their customary disregard for defence, a line of five attackers purring forward with gushing, almost smug intent.
The Socceroos had looked reasonably comfortable until the opening goal, and nothing was happening much after 10 minutes when the ball came towards Mat Ryan in goal. But the young keeper flapped forward, then back, allowing Charles Aránguiz to squeeze through on the byline and float a ball back across goal, where Vargas clashed with a tangle of Australian players, sending the ball straight to the feet of Sánchez.
The Barcelona player planted his finish past Ryan with the cool authority of someone applying mere punctuation to a statement everyone had already agreed on: Chile were simply too good. Sánchez's goal was a thing of almost Cahill-esque positioning and timing.
Sweaty, bewildered and overwhelmed, their white socks figuring less as a touching gesture of reconnection with the lost history of the national team than the expression of some kind of hopeless World Cup innocence, the Socceroos struggled to regain their composure after the opener, and it was just two minutes later that the Chileans struck again. Sánchez turned Jedinak beautifully just outside the area – precisely the touch of pure class that everyone had expected to separate the Chileans from their opponents – and surged forward.
The Socceroos seemed mesmerised by the Barcelona man's run, with four defenders tracking him and forgetting Jorge Valdívia, lurking unmarked in the middle of the box, and the Palmeiras man gave himself plenty of time before launching a shot that was all sweetness and timing, into the top left corner.
The early tension had been drained out of the game and all the predictions of a massacre suddenly took on a horrible air of reality. For a moment it looked like the Socceroos would never get the ball, but when they did, it was a bit of direct running down the right from Matthew Leckie, the Australian football team's answer to the all-you-can-eat buffet, that set them back on their path. Chile's early aggression waned and the Socceroos worked themselves back into the match.
The goal, when it came, was of a familiarity to warm even the most football-phobic Australian heart, Ivan Franjic hustling down the right, before the ball pinned off Leckie and fell to the defender's feet again. A cross, a Cahill leap, a goal.
How many more times will Australia see that goal description written in this tournament? Australia were back in it, and they steamed onto the field for the second half like men possessed, Tim Cahill seeing a textbook bullet header disallowed for offside and Mark Bresciano, in one of his most effective games in a yellow shirt, pearling a stunning left-footed volley off a cross from the excellent Jason Davidson that the Chilean captain Claudio Bravo only just managed to keep out of goal. The shackles thrown off, both teams settled into a glorious, relentless, end-to-end rhythm, but when Sánchez played Vargas in past the hour mark, it looked like Chile would give their lead the cushion that many had expected.
A desperate, sliding clearance off the line saved the Socceroos, who attacked again, the indomitable Cahill throwing his head at everything. Try as they might, the equaliser just would not come – and when the substitute Jean Beausejour scored the Chileans' third in the dying minutes, the fate of the Socceroos at this World Cup was all but confirmed.