We are all Socceroos now: Australia dreams ahead of clash with Argentina, Messi

Milos Degenek: Messi is the greatest, but he's human (0:14)

Australia and Columbus Crew defender Milos Degenek talks about his admiration for Lionel Messi before facing Argentina in the round of 16 at the World Cup. (0:14)

DOHA, Qatar -- Welcome to the knockout stages of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, otherwise known as the point where Australian football begins to wonder if it's slipped into some kind of fever dream. For a week and a half now, broader Australiana, otherwise known as the once-every-four-years brigade, have swelled the ranks of those who live and breathe the game Down Under. And they've definitely been taken on a heck of a ride.

Across three group games, die-hard and casual fans alike have seen the Socceroos' campaign seemingly ended before it had even begun by a rampant France, only to rise like a phoenix -- or whatever the Australian equivalent of a phoenix would be, probably something with sharp teeth, a pouch, and venom just because it can -- from the ashes and record back-to-back wins over Tunisia and Denmark.

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At times, it has felt like the realm of a particularly pulpy work of fiction, an inescapable odyssey of twists and turns, thrills and spills, and a heaped serving of "Aussie DNA". And fittingly, as the narrator overhead looks to raise the stakes, a sudden twist has arrived in the form of the world's football giants and one of its proudest footballing nations: Lionel Messi and Argentina.

By all rights, this should be where the story ends for the Socceroos. And it almost certainly will. Argentina are among the teams tipped most widely to win the tournament, while these Socceroos were widely labelled during qualifying as the weakest Australian side in decades -- even if that were a blatantly false misrepresentation of selection and deployment. No amount of physicality, endeavor and collective will should be able to overcome the technical proficiency La Albiceleste should bring on Saturday evening.

But at the same time, for all this sense of foreboding inevitability, one dare not look away. Not just because Saudi Arabia have already defeated Argentina at this tournament, in the group stage, or that the past week has made a mockery of attempts to predict accurately what will happen when Australia take the pitch, but because it's become impossible to know when the next piece of Antipodean footballing history may occur in Qatar.

A first win at a men's World Cup since 2010? Achieved against Tunisia, as was the first clean sheet Australia have recorded at the tournament since 1974. Two wins at the same tournament? Achieved for the first time with the subsequent victory against Denmark. Progression to the round of 16 for just the second time in the nation's history? Also achieved thanks to Mat Leckie's already-immortal goal against the Danes.

Indeed, the likes of Leckie, Jackson Irvine and Harry Souttar have established themselves in the broader Australian consciousness during the group stage, serving as what the team hopes will be the inspiration for a new generation of boys and girls to choose a football over a Sherrin or Steeden. Souttar, in particular, has almost certainly added several million pounds to the price tag required to extract him from Stoke City, and, if nothing else, the sight of the two-metre defender manning up the 169cm Messi will produce one of the tournament's better images.

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Yet for all the potential protagonists in this tale of the Socceroos -- and we haven't got to Graham Arnold, who somehow has managed to turn a much-maligned devotion to the mythical power of Aussie DNA into a round-of-16 berth -- it increasingly feels like the main character of their 2022 campaign isn't even in Qatar at all. And perhaps that is more symbolic than corporeal in nature.

Nearly 7500 miles (12,000km) from Doha, the defining ambience for Australia's World Cup campaign has been provided by the warm glow of dozens and dozens of flares at what has quickly become the campaign's spiritual home, Federation Square in Melbourne, and the delirium soundtrack that has greeted every goal and every win.

Though other states and cities have quickly moved to establish their own live viewing sites in response to the incredible success of the Melbourne location, the atmosphere, magnetism and, daresay, culture that has sprung up around this concrete grotto by Flinders Street Station has taken on a life of its own. Fuelled by clips posted to social media, word of mouth, and an irresistible desire to be a part of something special, crowds have grown to the point wherein there are concerns that the venue's 10,000-person capacity will not be able to hold those drawn like moths to a flame (or flare).

It's remarkable.

Australia's not supposed to have this sort of fans, or these sorts of events. It's a footy country. A rugby or a cricket country. A place in which Arnold estimates football is the fourth or fifth sport in the public consciousness. It's definitely not somewhere that does things like this... or at least it wasn't until the square took on a life of its own and the cacophonous celebrations were broadcast around the world.

And for all of Arnold's disdain for social media, and his desire for his players to ignore the external noise (or sh*te, as he calls it), even he has been unable to prevent the shockwaves from what is now a tribal event seeping into his dressing room. As Socceroos' players made their way off the field after stunning the Danes, one of their first moves was to grab their phones or make their way over to others who were holding devices in order to get a glimpse of what was unfolding on the streets of Melbourne at 3:30 a.m., half a world away.

Jackson Irvine, a Frankston Pines product who was born in the city's southeast, was moved to tears by what he saw. This was his hometown, his family, his friends, and his people -- and it was through his and his teammate's actions that he had delivered it.

For all the benefits of the team's state-of-the-art training base at the Aspire Academy, its closed nature means the Socceroos are effectively inoculated from the noise of the outside world. Outside their brief periods at the Al Janoub Stadium, they haven't been able to see the tangible impact their actions are having on those who support them, or judge how they're making an impact and leaving a legacy back home. And it's here where Fed Square fills the void.

On Saturday evening, the players will enter the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, either as lambs to the slaughter or gladiators about to shock the world, knowing that, even if they can't see the fans, Australia will be packed into the square and sites like it across their nation. And they will take heart from it.

Some of those punters will be there to support their boys in green and gold; others will be drawn by the sense of theatre and occasion; and others by a desire to bolster their Instagram and TikTok content. But by the time the opening whistle blows, they will be all for the Socceroos.