Things move a little slower here on a Friday. With the working week running from Sunday to Thursday, Friday is the Muslim holy day, a time for gathering, for congregation at places of worship.

In itself, it leaves the crowds feeling a little thinned out. But with Friday night rounding off the group stages of Qatar’s World Cup and the final four sides sent home to leave just 16 remaining, the streets of Doha really felt a bit emptier.

But in one corner at least, a crowd had assembled. They’d gathered on this holy day to delve into the miracle of the 2022 World Cup — that Australia remain when half of the world has been forced to leave. The Socceroos are still standing and the global media wanted to know how in the name of hell that came to be.

Quieter day or not, Harry Souttar would still stand out in any crowd. You couldn’t lose him at the Hajj. He strode up on the stage alongside Socceroos supremo Graham Arnold to talk about what awaits them here on Saturday — Lionel Messi and Argentina for a place in the quarter-finals. It was free-flowing, refreshing and illuminating but you still walked away from it wondering if there was a scripture somewhere that explained how all this had occurred.

Australia have ripped up all of the books on their way through Group B — the form books, the style guides, their own country’s historical records. In a World Cup where Morocco have been an effervescent revelation in red, where the relentless Japanese have downed two champions of recent vintage, where Argentina have already gone through their a religious experience of their own, there’s an argument that Australia are still the most compelling story out here.

Even their journey through Group B on its own has been a wonder. They scored a stunning opener to lead France on day three, only to be skittled out in a Bleus backlash. They recovered to pull off back-to-back 1-0 victories over Tunisia and then Denmark that were built on sticking to Arnold’s system, incredible defensive resolve and work, work, work with some clinical finishing deciding matters.

But zoom out and it’s even clearer. This was by most pundits’ reckoning the least talented Socceroos squad for a generation, led by a coach who had grown to be if not disliked then certainly unloved by the Australian football community. They negotiated a qualification campaign spent mostly on the run from their country due to its tight Covid restrictions, just four qualifiers being played on home soil.

But this supposedly unremarkably panel, backboned by eight A League representatives and six SPFL players after a seventh, Martin Boyle, withdrew thought injury, have pulled off the remarkable here. In the process they’ve relit a fire under the sport back home, one not seen since the golden generation of Viduka, Kewell and Cahill 16 years ago now.

“One thing that we have achieved is reuniting the nation after Covid and reuniting our sport of football,” said Arnold, known as Arnie to the media women and men from Australia, a country that would find a way to shorten a one-letter word. “When you see those scenes back in Australia, we want more. We haven’t finished yet.

The Herald: Harry Souttar in Australia trainingHarry Souttar in Australia training (Image: Getty)

“The universe is looking down on us and paying us back for all we’ve done. We played four of 20 games at home. We have hard journeys. Covid helped unite this team together — the brotherhood, the mateship. We played five World Cup qualifiers here in Qatar. We’ve won six out of seven games here now. It’s a home away from home.”

In so many ways, it is Souttar who sums up the journey better than most. The giant Aberdeen oak is the tallest player in Qatar and has been at the root of Australia’s resolute rearguard. Unremarkable during a loan spell with Ross County in 2018, he was certainly not rated anywhere as highly as brother John. When he switched nationalities to his mother’s country in 2019 it hardly caused a stir. Now 12 caps — and six goals — later, he is a cult hero.

If there was to be a team of the group stages picked, he would be in there. A heroic last-ditch tackle in the dying moments against Tunisia became the stuff of instant legend. At the risk of being unholy, his Wikipedia was updated as so: “Against Tunisia, Souttar caused mass boners across the great southern land with one of the greatest sniping tackles god’s earth has ever seen.”

And for his next task? Lionel Messi.

“We’ve already surprised a few people with our results and we want to surprise a few more,” the 24-year-old said on Thursday. “We know it’s going to be a difficult task. I don’t think it’s just an individual thing, it’s a collective. It can’t come down to just one individual trying to stop [Messi]. He’s just going to have to be just another player I’m up against.”

Souttar described the France shellacking as “the best thing that could have happened to us”, a lesson served early enough to learn and adapt. Alongside Hearts centre-back Kye Rowes and Dundee United’s Aziz Behich on the left, they have learned and locked things down. He was asked how surprised he was to be here. The answer: not at all.

“If you’d told me that four years ago, I’d probably have believed you,” he said. “Because we had so much belief in ourselves. For us, we’re not surprised. I know we’ve surprised people Hopefully we can do that again tomorrow.”

Arnold was gregarious and generous with his time and his tales. He spoke of his memories of staring down El Diego and Argentina in 1993 when the sides met in an inter-continental play-off.

“I was talking about that in the car on the way here with Harry,” said the manager. “Maradona had retired and he had put on a lot of weight. But the fans were calling and singing for him to come back. He lost a lot of weight in six weeks and came back. You couldn’t get near him to kick him.”

The countries share more memories and history than you may first imagine. They have been frequent opponents and as recently as last year, Australia got the better of them. A Tokyo Olympics clash, with nine of the current Australia squad and two of the Argentines, finished 1-0, a scoreline that is becoming an Aussie hallmark.

“I just think that Argentina bring the best out of Australia,” said the 59-year-old. “We go into the game with a lot of belief and a lot of energy. It’s a big one per-center because they will bring the best out of us. Ten blue shirts against ten yellow shirts. It’s a battle. It’s a war. And we have to win it. We’ll go out there and give it all guns blazing.”

Souttar vs Messi. If the universe is indeed looking down on Australia and the rest of us, it’s having a good laugh along the way. The miracle continues.