AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — From a World Cup -threatening knee injury to marking Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe at soccer's biggest tournament, it’s been a wild ride for Australia defender Harry Souttar.
Now, after a 2-1 loss to Argentina on Saturday and elimination from the World Cup, it’s back to the grind of English soccer’s second division for the Stoke defender.
Souttar, however, has experienced one pinch-yourself moment after another in Qatar and leaves with stories that will last a lifetime. Like the moment he left arguably the greatest player ever in a heap on the turf at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
In a total mismatch, the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Souttar crashed through the 5-7 (1.69-meter) Messi in the 41st minute.
“That’s what it’s all about, though,” Australia midfielder Riley McGree said.
Shortly before that collision, the Argentina great had scored by sweeping a shot between Souttar’s legs — one of the most embarrassing moves that can happen to a professional soccer player.
So maybe that was payback.
Not that Souttar needed to beat himself up too much about that moment. It was, after all, Lionel Messi, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, playing his 1,000th game and scoring his ninth World Cup goal to move one ahead of Diego Maradona and one behind Argentina’s record-holder in the tournament, Gabriel Batistuta.
“We controlled them so well in the first half,” Australia midfielder Jackson Irvine said. “That one little moment, that one half a meter you give him in the box, we’ve seen it hundreds of times, he is so ruthless, so clinical, ultimately that was the difference.”
That Souttar was even on the same field as Messi was an achievement in itself. Especially after recovering from a ruptured ACL, which he injured in a World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia in Sydney last November.
His road to Qatar was long, arduous and at times lonely as he worked individually in the gym at Stoke’s training ground, watching his teammates out on the field doing what he couldn’t.
It was almost a year to the day that he made his comeback, on Nov. 8 in a 2-0 win over Luton.
Hardly ideal preparation before heading into a World Cup, let alone coming up against two of the best players on the planet.
“It’s inspirational, honestly,” McGree said. “I’m really close with Harry off the pitch, but on the pitch he’s a warrior, he’s got quality and he can move for the size he is. He is only going to have a bright future going forward, definitely.”
In Australia's opening Group D game, the team faced Mbappe and defending champion France. Mbappe scored in the 4-1 victory, but Souttar and the Aussies recovered to secure a spot in the knockout round for only the second time in its history after reaching the round of 16 in 2006.
That set up a date with Messi, which is where Australia's story ends.
For Souttar, however, his brush with the greatest will live forever.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports