When your career begins at The Den, a football ground next to a rubbish dump, a tone is set. “We are Millwall, super Millwall’ shout the fans, “no one likes us, we don’t care!” As the biting London wind whistles through stands, the chapped lips of the attending masses only spray it louder into the gelid night: “No one likes us, we don’t care!” The football on offer is thud and blunder. The vitriol aimed at the visiting supporters – especially those from arch enemies Crystal Palace and West Ham – is ferociously caustic. This is no merry away trip; this is Millwall Football Club.
It was here that Tim Cahill received his footballing baptism. The fans took to him as one of their own, whether he liked it or not, and so began the ‘Mongrel Cahill’ image. Cahill’s home country took to it just as happily; in 1998, when Cahill made his debut in England, some saw football as a novelty sport for ‘softer types’. With Harry Kewell sparkling at Leeds, a satisfying sporting contrast was drawn between the two young footballers.
The comparison remained in the back of the Australian sporting consciousness as their careers progressed (though in Kewell’s case, that word is used lightly). Things really came to a head when Cahill was sold to Everton in 2004, with Kewell having transferred to Liverpool the year before. There was Handsome Harry, the elegant underachiever, constantly injured and flattering to deceive at his European Uber-Club. And there, was Tiny Tim, synchronously the smallest and biggest aerial threat, grafting like a maniac, and outscoring Kewell by 34 goals during their time together in Merseyside. Local rivals, Aussies abroad, and utter iconoclasts of each other’s definition of what a successful ‘Australian footballer’ should be.
The personality of Everton under David Moyes further cemented the ‘scrapper’ image for Cahill. The Toffees spent most of the mid-to-late Naughties watching glumly as Liverpool won European and F.A Cups. Moyes, if nothing else, (and his time at Manchester United perhaps proved that there was little else) instilled a sort of amour proper in his team about their underdog status, and they made careers playing the role of the plucky upstarts, always determined to charge, forehead-first, into the odds, if not the Champions League places. In many ways, Cahill was the clearest distillation of that identity, inexplicably good in the air, scoring many more goals than he should be able to, and in ways no one had any right to expect.
And so it was for eight years. He never moved to a larger club, and he never won any silverware. He stole the show for Australia at the World Cup in Germany, singlehandedly defeating Japan in the opening game. He became a beloved national sporting hero, a little rough-necked, but no sell-out. Even his transfer to New York Red Bulls didn’t shake the image, despite his new home being the most glamorous, cosmopolitan city in the world (and about as far away from Millwall as you can get).
So why, when Cahill announced a few weeks ago that he had signed a reported $6.5 million contract with Chinese Super League team Shanghai Shenhua, did the public react so abrasively? Why on Earth did John Laws embarrass Cahill (though mainly himself) on national radio by asking about the specifics of his salary and scoffing over the perceived fact that he must be “a very rich man”? Why the hundreds of ill-tempered comments beneath dozens of online articles covering the announcement, all criticising Cahill’s choice of destination?
Of course, a lot of fans are simply disappointed. When given the choice, Cahill chose China over our relatively impoverished A-League. He had supposedly rebuffed an offer from Sydney FC, and certainly no Australian club could match the salary he’s set to earn in China. But more than this, his decision is at odds with the gritty persona we’d believed in. Cahill pointed out to Laws in that infamous radio interview: “I’ve had big contracts my whole career”. Cahill’s contract in the MLS was one of the most lucrative in the league.
This ‘battler’ image is a falsehood, a lazy characterisation, and the fallout from Cahill’s decision to go to Shanghai indicates we’ve only just realised this and we feel a bit stupid. It isn’t surprising that we’ve held onto the idea for so long; of course, Australia loves an underdog, just like everyone else does. Underdogs aren’t allowed to earn a lot of money though, so the love comes with a proviso. But we, as a nation, also have an inherent distrust of the flashy, the wealthy, the too handsome or the overly gelled, particularly when it comes to sport. Plugger never swanned around in tight jeans. Dennis Lillee never waxed his chest. We much preferred it when Ian Thorpe was winning gold medals in a suspiciously buoyant suit, instead of catwalking and appearing as an ersatz Bosley on Channel Seven’s Undercover Angels. To be publically wealthy or ostentatious is to be superior, and to be superior is to lose the crowd. Cahill never asked to discuss the fiscal terms of his contract in public, let it be clear, that was solely the decision of the media.
How quick we are to disown, it seems. Many used this perceived insult as justification to strip Cahill of a number of honorary titles. This whole idea of Cahill owing the domestic game some sort of debt of service is absurd. Cahill is not obligated to return to the country of his birth after he has reached an arbitrarily decided upon age, and the fact that he hasn’t isn’t reason enough to diminish the service he has already given to Australian football. This is a player who has scored more goals for Australia than anyone else, and not only that; Cahill has scored the greatest goals in our history as a footballing nation. His second against Japan. His strike against The Netherlands in last year’s World Cup. His bicycle kick finish against China in this year’s Asian Cup. These are our versions of Warnie’s Ball of the Century, or Jesaulenko’s mark. They are the Australian football’s grandstand moments, memories that bring up a buttery lump in the throat, and they were provided by Tim Cahill.
What’s clear is that the ‘Mongrel Cahill’ image is gone. And, in truth, we should bid it good riddance because it was never an exact reflection of Australia’s greatest Socceroo anyway.