DOHA, Qatar -- It's always the hope that kills you; that special kind of melancholy that can only be delivered when against your better judgement, you begin to let your guard down, only for the cold, pitiless force of reality to quickly hit like a brick to the face.
For 27 minutes of France and Australia's meeting at the Al Janoub stadium on Tuesday evening, the greatest result in the Socceroos' 100-year history beckoned. On a day of miracles at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, John Aloisi's penalty in 2005 and the Asian Cup-winning heroes of 2015 looked set to be about to be relieved of their place in the pantheon of Australian sporting folklore by Mat Leckie's touch from the gods and Craig Goodwin's rocket from Radalaide in the ninth minute. It had happened for Senegal in 2002 and now, 20 years on, it could happen again.
But then the last hour of the game happened. A healthy dose of reality rained down on the wonderful fantasy world that was being constructed in fans' minds from Hobart to Alice Springs.
Australia knew they were rank outsiders coming into Tuesday's contest. Only the most fanciful of fans genuinely believed that Graham Arnold's men were capable of staging one of the biggest World Cup upsets in history. It was a position of weakness that they had attempted to turn into a strength; using their status as underdogs to hone a game plan built around physicality and assiduity and to unify around a common purpose of proving their doubters wrong. That few had considered them a chance of upsetting Peru in a qualification playoff in June was frequently brought up by players in the week leading up to the fixture.
Yet unfortunately for Arnold and his side, all those perceptions, those sceptical voices and doubtful predictions, existed for a very good reason.
For all the promises of fighting spirit, physicality, a united sense of purpose, and maximal effort from the Australian camp, the contest taking place was a football match, not a boxing one. And the French, defending champions that they are, happen to be rather good at those.
In the 27th minute, Theo Hernandez -- who took over the game when he replaced his brother Lucas Hernandez who was injured trying to defend Leckie's sublime touch on Goodwin's opener -- prevented Australia from clearing their lines after a corner and lofted an inviting ball into the area towards Adrien Rabiot. The Juventus midfielder promptly ghosted into a yard of space left absent as Kye Rowles moved to double up on Olivier Giroud, headed across the face of keeper Mat Ryan and found the back of the net.
Five minutes later, Ryan looked to play his side out from the back, only for Les Bleus' high-press to force Nathaniel Atkinson into a horror touch that allowed Rabiot to swan into the box and cut the ball back for a simple tap-in finish from Giroud.
By the end of the first half, the margin should have been much greater than a single goal as Deschamps' side marauded down either flank with impunity, with only their inability to find that final cutback holding them back. Kylian Mbappe, in a tournament in which he is trying to supplant Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as football's chief golden idol, should have put his nation up 3-1 in the 45th minute when picked out by Antoine Griezmann at close range but could only volley his point-blank effort over the bar.
But as an overarching sense of existential dread began to set in amongst the Socceroos travelling fans about what was happening before their very eyes as the second half resumed, the Paris Saint-Germain superstar got his goal in the 63rd when stayed in the box as his side moved into a second phase and was somehow allowed to rise between defenders Harry Souttar and Rowles and head home his side's third.
Three minutes later, as all worst-case scenarios that had run through Australian fans' minds across the past few months continued to manifest before their eyes, Giroud had his brace and an equal share of France's all-time men's goals-coring lead with Thierry Henry when he rose to meet an Mbappe cross and power yet another header past a hapless Ryan. Of the four goals that the Socceroos conceded on Tuesday evening, three came from headers -- despite Rowles and Souttar, both nominally strong in the air -- getting the start.
In the end, while Saudi Arabia's stunning win over Argentina earlier that day had proven that the house doesn't always win when it comes to sport's grandest stage, Australia couldn't find its own bit of magic eight hours later. Instead, Arnold's Group of Dreams has quickly proven to be a nightmare, and his hopes of progressing beyond the group stages were dealt a savage blow by a second-half capitulation that the Socceroos boss had absolutely no answer for.
Indeed, though you can't win the World Cup in its first game, you can lose one -- Iran's 6-2 smashing at the hands of England the night prior almost certainly ending Team Melli's tournament even before it began -- and now Australia finds themselves sitting at the bottom of Group D heading into matchday two with a goal difference of negative three and two more stern tests awaiting them. Tunisia and Denmark's 0-0 draw earlier in the day is perhaps the only faint light giving hope that this can all somehow be salvaged before an ignominious group stage exit is confirmed.
First will come the Eagles of Carthage on Saturday afternoon, in a game that the Socceroos must take at least a point from if they are to keep their hopes of progression alive. Then will come the Danes who, at that point, will likely need a comfortable win over Australia to guarantee themselves a place in the last 16.
Australia, inevitably, will say all the right things about bouncing back and having belief ahead of those games, and Arnold will do everything he can to lift his side off the canvas and somehow get them to believe the platitudes coming out of their mouths
But at some point in the next few days, the Australian coach is going to need to find some footballing answers as well; because right now, in the shadow of a 4-1 defeat, Australia isn't going to be able to believe their way out of this hole.