It is a journey from Montrose to Mbappe. While Martin Boyle will begin his first global tournament against Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and the rest of a France team defending the World Cup, his first-team career started in humbler surroundings: Scottish Division 3.
Figuratively, the Australia winger has come a long way. Geographically, too. Not everyone represents the country of their birth but perhaps no one in Qatar comes from further away from their adopted nation. “I am a little boy from Aberdeen playing in a World Cup,” he tells The Independent. “Sometimes I still pinch myself. My family are still incredibly proud of where we came from. I started from the bottom of Scottish football and worked my way up and if you had told me this four years ago, I would probably have laughed in your face.”
But whereas Scotland need few reminders their last World Cup was in 1998, they will have representation of sorts in Doha. Boyle is the Socceroo from Aberdeen, not Adelaide; he comes from closer to the Cairngorms than Canberra, nearer Brechin than Brisbane. “My accent doesn’t really fit the Aussie culture,” he admitted. But his father, Graeme, was born in Sydney, after his grandparents had emigrated and before they returned to Scotland.
None of which made a Socceroos call-up inevitable. “Me and my dad always spoke about it for years but we didn’t know how to go about it,” Boyle said. “I don’t think it is one of those things where you pick up the phone and go, ‘Oh hello, my son could play for Australia’.” Instead, the Hibernian dressing room featured men from Melbourne and Sydney and his club teammates Jamie Maclaren and Mark Milligan mentioned it. As a new era began for Australia in 2018, with Graham Arnold replacing Bert van Marwijk as manager, with Tim Cahill retiring, Boyle was first called to a training camp and then given a debut.
The abridged version would be to say the rest is history. The reality is more complicated. Boyle missed the 2019 Asian Cup through injury. His route to Qatar was a lengthy one and not merely in the sense of the miles covered. “The progression to the World Cup was fantastic but we didn’t do it the easy way,” he said. Some of the hurdles were footballing, some logistical.
“With Covid, it wasn’t ideal with the isolations and thankfully we managed to do it,” he added. Australia’s particularly strict quarantine regulations meant some of their ‘home’ games were played in Kuwait and Qatar. In various places, their pre-match preparation involved spells of self-isolation. “I think it was 10 days,” Boyle said. “The different countries we were going to, you needed your PCR test and you needed your visas to get in, we were waiting around the airports. Japan, we were there for four hours to get a couple of Covid tests and stuff like that, you weren’t allowed to leave your room. It was a bit difficult but at the same time we all came together and when we pulled on that jersey we managed to get the job done.”
Even that came with complications. Australia had to negotiate two play-offs, first against the United Arab Emirates and then against Peru. They were underdogs against a team who beat them in the 2018 World Cup, and again when the game went to penalties and Boyle missed the opening spot kick in the shootout.
His rescuer was a reserve goalkeeper. Arnold was rewarded for gambling, substituting captain and keeper Mat Ryan in the 120th minute. His understudy Andrew Redmayne put Peru off with his dancing antics on the line, making the save to ensure Australia would return to Doha. “He was the real hero and it was a fairytale ending,” said Boyle.
The prize of a clash with France could have been a distraction. “When I saw the draw we still hadn’t qualified so it was a bit difficult,” Boyle said. “You get excited, you know what is at stake, a game against the previous world champions and the talent that they have.” With qualification secure, he could devote more time to studying France.
“These are world superstars and they have won the World Cup before,” he said. “It will be quite eye-opening to see them in the tunnel and in person but at the same time you pull on the jersey and you line up, you get stuck right in.”
That has tended to be the Australian way. It took a contentious injury-time penalty from the eventual winners Italy to knock Australia out in 2006, the one time they reached the last 16. Arnold was involved then, on Guus Hiddink’s backroom staff. “Arnie and Guus are really close,” said Boyle and Hiddink joined Australia on their last training camp, reminiscing about the past.
The Dutch influence has been apparent in other ways. Rene Meulensteen is on the backroom staff now. “He has worked with the best manager on the planet in Sir Alex Ferguson. He has obviously worked with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano [Ronaldo] and to have any sort of information like that to help you, you sit back take it on board and try and execute it.”
It prompted the thought that the same tips that Meulensteen gave to a young Ronaldo are now being dispensed to Boyle. Yet Australia’s history with the Dutch stretches beyond Hiddink and Meulensteen, beyond even the comparisons between Arnold’s decision to bring on Redmayne and Louis van Gaal’s introduction of Tim Krul for the Netherlands’ 2014 shootout against Costa Rica.
A knee injury sustained playing for Hibs a fortnight ago could yet derail Boyle’s major tournament dream. For him, thinking back to Australia’s previous World Cups summons one image above all others. “The memory is Timmy Cahill’s volley against the Netherlands,” he said. “There are loads of memories and loads of iconic players who have played in the past so as a player individually you want to go out and recreate that. I don’t think I will be scoring a left-foot volley from there but it is definitely hero status if we can get a victory against France.”