Australia (second in Group D) will face Argentina (first in Group C) with a quarterfinal spot on the line (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo).
They’ll be heavy underdogs against the PSG superstar, who’s won seven Ballon d’Or awards and is linked with a summertime move to Inter Miami CF. But Degenek’s not going into Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium feeling intimidated.
“It's 11 against 11, it's not 11 Messi's. There's one,” Degenek said. “Obviously we know their squad is full of stars, even [Paulo] Dybala is on the bench and [Lautaro] Martinez comes off the bench. It's a squad that's immaculate, and I always loved Messi and I think he's the greatest to ever play the game.”
Degenek added it’s an honor to represent Australia in the Round of 16 at a World Cup, regardless of who the opponent is. And he’s hoping they can pull off the unexpected, facing an Albiceleste side that’s among the top-tier favorites and entered the Qatar-based tournament on a 36-game unbeaten streak.
“Am I saying why not us? I am,” Degenek said. “Leicester City won the Premier League, Croatia went to the World Cup final last World Cup. There has to always be that one story that kind of shocks the whole world, that one story where everyone jumps on the bandwagon and goes, 'Oh, our country is out. Let's support these guys because they're the underdogs.'
“I think it would be a lovely story. One day when we reflect on it, we could even write a book about it, that we ended up getting to a World Cup final and winning it. I think that would be the most beautiful story in the world and then the [government] would give the people a public holiday, I guess.”
The Socceroos started their Group D path with a 4-1 defeat against defending World Cup champions France, then they earned consecutive 1-0 wins over Tunisia and Denmark to book passage into the knockout rounds. They bucked expectations, sitting at just No. 38 in the FIFA World Rankings and needing an inter-confederation playoff (PK win over Peru) to even qualify.
Australia are in their fifth straight World Cup, but haven’t reached the Round of 16 since 2006. They fell 1-0 to eventual champions Italy that year, with Degenek labeling stars of the squad – he offered Harry Kewell and ex-New York Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill as two examples – the “Gods of Australian football.”
When all is said and done, Degenek hopes this 2022 squad is known as “Gods in our own way.”
“I'd love for us to get past Argentina and then I can come back here next Sunday, Monday and be like, 'Well I guess we are the greatest generation that [Australian] soccer has ever had,”' the 28-year-old said.
“But we'll have to wait and see for 12 o'clock Saturday night. I might be smiling and talking to you guys in the press conference room and saying we are the greatest. We'll see. We'll give it a couple of days.”
Degenek, normally a center back for Columbus, has played right back for Australia. He’s now on 40 senior caps and reflected quickly on his journey, from fleeing war-torn Croatia in the mid-1990s to playing on the sport’s greatest stage.
Above all else, he hopes it inspires the next generation. The World Cup final is on Dec. 18 at Lusail Stadium.
“God gave us all the imagination when we sleep to dream,” Degenek said. “You can dream of anything. I can go to bed tonight and dream of winning a World Cup and who's to say that in 15 days, 17 days whenever it is that dream won't become a real achievement?
“ … Anything is possible, really. Anything is possible with a bit of luck, a bit of determination and just head down and work hard.”