SOURCE: THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
I wasn’t there when Tim Cahill made his debut for Australia in a 1-0 win over South Africa at Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road ground in London in 2004.
But I was there a few months later when Cahill, who few then expected to become the legend he has, made his first appearance on Australian soil in an Oceania Nations Cup tournament staged in Adelaide in winter that year.
And, give or take a few matches, I have been there ever since when Cahill has made his most significant contribution to the Australian game, scoring the goals that have made him the icon he is and long has been.
Tim Cahill may not be the best player ever to have turned out for his country, certainly in terms of skill or outright ability.
Most would put Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and elegant midfielder/defenders like Paul Okon and Ned Zelic in front of him where raw talent is concerned.
But Cahill has eclipsed them all, by a significant margin, where it comes to the national team.
There is no argument that the Sydney-born former Millwall and Everton forward has no peers when it comes to the title of “Greatest Socceroo”: it’s Cahill first, the rest some way behind.
He has always been something of a freak when it comes to scoring goals and his aerial prowess is the stuff of legend.
Cahill’s detractors always used to say that he can’t really pass very well – he is not associated with playing defence-splitting balls – or that every time he tackled he looked like giving away a foul, and that his forte certainly wasn’t taking on defenders in one-on-one situations, beating them and setting up chances for himself or his teammates.
To an extent they were right. That wasn’t ever really Cahill’s game.
What he had, however, was something indefinable, something that can’t be taught and something equally as valuable.
He possessed an indefatigable workrate, a massive commitment, huge determination, physical toughness, a highly professional outlook that was determined to get the best out of himself, and crucially, he had an X-factor that simply can’t be taught.
Cahill had an instinctive sense of timing and an innate understanding of space, particularly where it was to be found in crowded penalty areas in which arms, legs and elbows were flying.
Allied to that, he had an uncanny spring which enabled him to get purchase on defenders and get higher than most.
He also had an unusally long ”hang time” which allowed him to stay airborne long enough to get his head on crosses before opponents.
Cahill scored his first five goals for Australia that way in routs of Tahiti and Fiji at a suburban ground at Marden, Adelaide, 14 years ago, announcing himself as a talent who would be a significant figure in the years to come.
But he was 24 at that stage, old enough to make his debut, so no one expected him to endure as he has, or provide so many golden memories.
It was in large part due to my former Fairfax colleague, the late and much lamented Mike Cockerill, that he got the chance in the first place.
Cahill had played for Samoa, the country of his mother’s birth, in an under-20 World Cup qualifier when he was just 14, a decision which looked to have cost him the chance of a serious international career as FIFA rules on nationality at that time were unbending.
Cockerill, and others, waged a long-term campaign to have Cahill’s ties to Samoa voided on the grounds that he was so young and shouldn’t be tied to a decision made at such an early age.
Eventually the rules were changed, with many others since Cahill a beneficiary.
For many, Cahill’s finest moment was when he came off the bench that sun-kissed afternoon in Kaiserslautern in June 2006, with Australia trailing Japan 1-0 in their first World Cup group game and time running out.
Cahill has always carried a sense of destiny about him, and never was it manifest more than on that afternoon.
Not only did he score the equaliser, he then netted an 89th-minute second to put Australia on the road to a famous victory.
The 2007 Asian Cup was not a happy memory for the Socceroos, yet it would have been an even more ignominious failure but for Cahilll.
Australia had already surprisingly lost to Iraq in their opening game in oppressive conditions at the Rajamangala stadium in Bangkok and looked to be heading for what would have been a shock early exist as they trailed Oman in the second game of the group phase 1-0 as the 90 minutes drew to a close.
Up popped Cahill off the bench to net a stoppage-time equaliser, spare the Socceroos blushes and keep them alive, at least for another couple of games, in that competition.
And so it went on. He scored in the 2010 World Cup against Serbia (a header of course) , he netted during the 2011 Asian Cup, when the Socceroos lost the final in extra time to Japan.
He scored spectacularly in the 2015 edition of that tournament, the overhead kick and the trademark header in the game against China, as the Australian men’s team went on to win the first major continental competition in its history, giving Cahill a significant winner’s medal in the autumn of his career.
He was still delivering at the ripe old age of 37 in that crucial game against Syria in Sydney in October 2017, netting the extra-time winner with, of course, a header, to put Australia into the final game of the intercontinental play-off against Honduras, a fixture they won to ensure that the Socceroos went to the World Cup in Russia.
The will-he-won’t-he saga of Cahill’s inclusion in the squad for the 2018 tournament was a soap opera neither he nor the team needed.
And he lost some lustre with the Australian public over the manner of his exit from the only A-League club he ever played for, Melbourne City, when he quit in a bid to get more game time at English Championship club Millwall earlier this year.
Whatever people think of that, or of Cahill in his later days, what can’t be disputed is that he has made an extraordinary contribution to the national team and the Australian game over 14 years, more than 100 caps and 57 goals.
For me, the one to savour out of all of those is his last World Cup goal, that amazing strike against the Netherlands in Port Alegre, Brazil, in June 2014.
It was cold in the stands that day, and the Dutch had just beaten Spain, the defending world champions, and were on a roll.
They had already taken an early lead against an Australian team that had lost 3-1 to Chile in their opening match (when Cahill, of course, had scored with a header).
Nothing looked on when Ryan McGowan flighted a cross from the right into space. The ball seemed to hang in the air and Cahill, arriving at pace from the left, caught it flush on the volley.
Fans in the stands could only look on in incredulity as Cahill’s screaming left-foot drive looped up at pace, came down just enough to smash the underside of the cross bar and fly in to give Australia an extraordinary equaliser.
It was the perfect synthesis of power, pace, direction and, maybe, sheer good fortune. It was perhaps the most wonderous moment of a wonderful international career, and it will long be savoured as one of the great World Cup goals of that, or any other, tournament.
Cahill will be remembered as one of the greats, not just of Australian soccer, but Australian sport.
It is appropriate that he makes his farewell in his home city on Tuesday night.