Long Reads Football Nostalgia

Tim Cahill Ballon d’Or – How he became a nominee in 2006

The headline ‘Tim Cahill Ballon d’Or winner’ is as surreal as it could have been sublime for Australians and Evertonians alike, with neither ever seeing one of their own lift the greatest personal honour in European football. Yet, it could have become reality in 2006, when Australia ended a 32-year wait to appear on the world’s biggest stage.

Pivotal towards that glorious moment, which precedes what is currently a run of four further appearances after Australia’s shrewd move to the AFC qualification region, was the form of Tim Cahill. But the circumstances that made him such a warrior were set long before the halcyon mid-2000s…

How Tim Cahill became a Ballon d’Or nominee

Where was Tim Cahill born?

Son of an English/Irish father and Samoan mother, Tim Cahill was born in Parra’dowee on December 6th, 1979. At that time of year in a dry region, temperatures easily exceed 40 degrees Celsius on a daily basis, but by the time a tiny Tim was taking his first steps, the seasons had changed.

Gentler conditions presented the infant Cahill with a great chance to pick up his first rugby ball, and it would have been no surprise if the first ball he showed interest in was egg-shaped. After all, six of his relatives – including three cousins – would go on to play league and union, and one day he’d have two nephews of his own that would follow suit.

Millwall and Everton make the man

But fate had different plans, and after a childhood that was highly influenced by football, followed by two years with Sydney Olympic as a teenager, Cahill went to Millwall as youth in 1997 and made his senior bow the following year. Averaging around a goal every four games in his subsequent years at The Den, he was part of the team that reached the FA Cup final in 2004, which piqued the interest of Everton’s then-manager David Moyes, who needed a cost-effective link between midfield and attack.

Cahill wasted no time in endearing himself to the blue half of Merseyside upon leaving South London. Netting a trademark headed matchwinner at Manchester City in September 2004 – and subsequently being sent off for an ‘illegal’ celebration – was just the start. Albeit without the red card, he produced the same heroics a fortnight later at Portsmouth, and went on to play a huge role in overseeing Everton’s jump from finishing 17th to Champions League football via fourth place inside a mere year.

A Christmas Miracle on Wearside

But the good times weren’t to last, and by the New Years Eve of 2005/06, the Toffees hovered a single point above the relegation zone, having been long dumped out of Europe altogether.

Over a miserable festive period, Everton had conceded 11 goals in three games, while scoring just once in a typical ‘men-versus-boys’ defeat to Liverpool. They finished the 2005 calendar year with a trip to bottom club Sunderland, who were already all-but-destined for the drop. Yet, the Wearsiders played some of their best football of the season in that game, and while that wasn’t saying much, they should have long been out of sight.

As it was, the score stood at 0-0 going into the last of four added minutes. David Moyes’ job was unquestionably on the line too, meaning that it was now or never for a hero to emerge. Everton had a corner after James Beattie saw a desperate shot deflected wide, and if ever Kevin Kilbane needed to deliver a pinpoint flag kick, it was in this moment. The Irishman hit it hard and true, and before anyone in stripes could blink, the ball was off Cahill’s head and into the corner of Kelvin Davis’ net for a last-gasp winner that sent an away-end sea of blue into raptures.

It was also in that moment Evertonians first witnessed what quickly became Cahill’s trademark celebration, where the Aussie would spar with a corner flag, just about delivering a series of dancing jabs and a final hook before jubilant teammates could mob him. Less than 48 hours later, Charlton would visit Goodison and put up only a slightly better fight than said corner flag, with Cahill bagging a brace in a 3-1 win over the Addicks.

No looking back

As 2006 began in earnest, Everton only grew in confidence, taking 13 points from the next 15 available, with the only blip being a 1-1 draw at Wigan that birthed the famous Bullard/Ferguson meme. It marked an unbelievable change in fortunes for Everton, after taking the same number from the first 39 up for grabs that season. During this blistering run for the Toffees, Cahill also knocked old club Millwall out of the FA Cup, having been taken all the way to extra time in a third-round replay at Goodison Park.

Further goals for Cahill in the spring of 2006 contributed towards what was ultimately a comfortable mid-table finish for Everton. They attained mathematical safety a week before Easter, and avoided the drop by a whole 16 points. The following club campaign also began well for Cahill, with a notable highlight being his opener against Liverpool in early September, as the Toffees strolled to a 3-0 victory over the Reds – a result which is likely to mark their biggest derby win of the PL era for very many years.

Pride comes before a fall

But it was his prowess at that summer’s World Cup which really put him in the frame for Ballon d’Or glory. Thanks to a 26th-minute goal from Shunsuke Nakamura, Japan led Australia 1-0 at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion in Kaiserslautern, and looked like they would just about get over the line. But in a late show of similar magnitude to the one he had shown at Sunderland six months prior, Cahill scored a five-minute brace.

Though it was an ugly, scuffed effort rather than the 30-yard top-corner Exocet he might have dreamt of the night before, his first strike was Australia’s very first at a World Cup finals. The second, however, was much more like it, with Cahill smashing in off the post from the edge of the box to complete the turnaround. John Aloisi then sealed the points with a fine solo run and shot.

Australia went on to reach the group stage before exiting the Round of 16, courtesy of a last-second Francesco Totti penalty for eventual winners 10-man Italy. They had crafted several clear chances with the man advantage, but failed to take any of them.

Tim Cahill Ballon d’Or nomination over in a blink

Although Everton had lost for the first time in 2006/07 just two days prior, October 16th was a great day to be Tim Cahill, as he joined the official 50-man shortlist to scoop that year’s Ballon d’Or, following a return of four goals and three assists from the first two months of the new campaign. In turn, he was the first Evertonian to be nominated since Welsh goalkeeper Neville Southall in 1988, and the only player from an AFC nation on the list.

Poignantly, it was the last year before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo started habitually finishing on the podium, and the penultimate edition before one of them began winning it every year – a trend that continued until Luka Modric won it in 2018. But Cahill would not be the last Ballon d’Or recipient prior to the ‘Ronaldo v Messi era’ – not even close.

Ultimately, Cahill’s place on the 50-man shortlist did not transfer any further, with the Australian warrior failing to receive any votes from the journalists or the international managers and captains that cast them. In fact, no Australian player at all got a vote. Yet, to put that into context, neither did the likes of Michael Ballack, Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres.

Such is the current situation, it is unlikely that an Australian will trouble the podium any time soon. The road to lifting a Ballon d’Or is invariably bedecked with silverware, and that means an Australian talent has to make it to the very top. Think Real Madrid, Manchester City or Barcelona. Yet, they also have to be consistent first teamers with a club that has enough depth to rotate without a second thought.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the ‘criteria’ for Ballon d’Or consideration, Tim Cahill will always be remembered as a fighter who overcame stiff odds to get Australia on the map after a generation of agony on the international scene. And the current generation of Socceroos will no doubt take inspiration from his as well, as they prepare to take on England.

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