About halfway down the central annex of the Aspire Academy, where the Socceroos are staying for the duration of their Qatar World Cup campaign, there are two single rooms that sit next door to each other in the hall: W3 and W4.
Most of Australia’s 26 players are sharing apartments in this complex, with two — often good friends — assigned to bunk together. But W3 and W4 are different.
These solo rooms have been reserved for the team’s two leaders, captain Mat Ryan and veteran midfielder Aaron Mooy. As two of the Socceroos’ quieter, more private players, wanting their own space makes sense. It also makes sense for the team, with their similarly understated leadership styles acting like a cool balm across the hot chaos of this World Cup.
There is something striking about both the training base and the squad that has been preparing there for the past week. With all the heat and noise and dust and drama that have engulfed this tournament, the environment that Australia has created is one of almost Zen-like calm.
From the quiet accommodation halls decorated with small stones and lush green ferns, to the media conferences with the players, there is an unmistakable sense of ease that seems to have washed across them all.
It’s an environment that has been created deliberately in the physical sense, but also evolved organically because of what this team has been through over the past year; the silver lining to their tumultuous, exhausting qualifiers that were affected by lockdowns, border restrictions and dips in form.
“You can look at positives and negatives of a lot of things,” head coach Graham Arnold said philosophically the day before their opening match against France.
“If you look at how a lot of the other nations qualified — in Europe, for example, [they had] eight qualifiers, we had 20 — so we’ve been in these situations in camp with a short lead-in to games many, many times, and the boys know exactly what to expect. So they’re relaxed, as you can tell. We’re all relaxed, we’re all excited. And there is no better way to go into a game.”
That has been the vibe from every Socceroo who has sat to speak with members of the media for the past seven days, often two in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Even the younger players have relaxed into their chairs and eased into the questions, exchanging fun lines with journalists and giving us a glimpse into their current states of mind.
Or, almost all of them.
Mooy, one of the team’s famous introverts, was a little tricker to get to know. But that came as no surprise, especially not to him.
“I’m not much of a big talker,” Mooy said sheepishly to warm laughter when asked about his status as one of the team’s leaders earlier this week.
“I just try and do the right things off the pitch, on the pitch, and yeah, hopefully … I don’t know. I don’t like to talk about myself.
“[I’ll] hopefully just try to play well and then hopefully that inspires people.”
It does. In 2018, when Australia played France in a mirror-image opening match of their World Cup group in Russia, it was Mooy who was the engine room of the Socceroos’ midfield.
He seemed to cover a nation’s width of ground in that 2-1 loss, acting as a kind of pale counterpoint to France’s own running man N’Golo Kante.
Even when the game was crawling to a close, with Australia’s players run ragged after chasing blue shadows, it was Mooy who sprinted back in the 94th minute to make a last-ditch tackle to stop a French counter.
“Some leaders shoot their mouth off – they’re yelling all the time. Aaron’s one of them who leads just by action,” Arnold told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“If he chases back, does a slide tackle, the rest of the boys say, ‘F***, look at Aaron.’ And they start doing the same. We all know he doesn’t talk much. But he’s a fantastic leader.
“Even in that game against Peru, when I took Maty [Ryan] off – I didn’t tell him where to put the captain’s armband, or who to give it to; he just walked straight to Aaron and put it on his arm. That’s the respect that he has from the boys.”
Mooy’s quiet leadership has been visible off the field, too. A few months before those crucial play-off games against the UAE and Peru, having been locked out of his Chinese club due to a contract dispute and locked down due to the pandemic, Mooy was on the brink of retirement. He missed his home, his partner, his family. But a chance text from Arnold changed everything.
“I think he was pretty much done,” Arnold said.
“I was over in Scotland, and before I went there, I texted him [saying], ‘What are you doing? Where are you at?’ because he wasn’t back from China. His club wasn’t making it easy for him. Mentally, he was shot.
“He sent me a text [saying], ‘Arnie, do you really need me?’ I said, ‘F*** yes. Absolutely, mate. We need you.'”
And so, alone in a park in Glasgow, Mooy ran. And ran and ran and ran. He decline more than $300,000 in club wages to take part in a months-long individual boot camp organised by Arnold and Socceroos strength and conditioning coach Andrew Clarke, trying to get his body (and, most importantly, his mind) back to the levels required for international football.
Mooy went on to have two of the most impressive games of his career – playing the full 90 and 120 minutes, and scoring in the decisive shootout while wearing the captain’s armband.
That is the kind of leadership that Ryan, the Socceroos’ most-capped player and current captain, embodies too.
When he was substituted for Andrew Redmayne against Peru in July, Ryan’s reaction was not one of frustration or confusion. It was total faith. His first words to his heroic replacement were: “All the best, mate. This is your time. You’ve got this. It’s all you.”
In Ryan and Mooy, the Socceroos don’t just have two of Australia’s best footballers, they have two of their greatest leaders: men who lead quietly, confidently and, more than anything, by example.
And against France on Wednesday morning (AEDT), reigning champions consumed by the chaos of their own stardom, the serenity of Australia’s two leaders could make all the difference.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had many examples of great leaders at my club football, but more so within the Socceroos,” Ryan said.
“Coming onto the scene with the Socceroos at a young age and having a lot of the Golden Generation around — the examples they set, the standards they set for themselves — one thing that always stood out to me was the guys who always went the extra length to dedicate themselves, sacrifice everything, in order to get the most out of their abilities.
“The leaders — for example, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Mile Jedinak — all these big moments in the history of football, they were there and they produced for our countries.
“Probably the biggest aspect of leadership for me is production on the football pitch. As players, we’re presented with numerous moments within a game where the odds are stacked against us and we have to use all we’ve practised in order to come out on top.
“That dedication to being able to prepare yourself to give everything for the team is a great leadership quality [and] being able to come out on top more often when no-one expects you to.”