Australia Praying for "A Little Miracle"
Sean O'Conor talks to Guus Hiddink
Guus Hiddink must be a glutton for punishment. Having taken two
nations to the World Cup semi-finals already and now in charge of
Dutch Champions PSV, the club he won the European Cup with in 1988,
you would think he might not want another job.
But when Football Federation Australia called time on Frank Farina's
six-year reign at the end of June, a call went out to the man who
set Seoul and the rest of South Korea on fire in 2002.
Although he had little more than four months' preparation before
their do-or-die World Cup play-off against the fifth-placed South
American side, and about as many chances to watch his men play in
that time period, Hiddink was happy to oblige.
Australia are the big fish in the small Oceania pond whose dreams
of World Cup glory rest realistically on only two matches every
four years. No other country in the FIFA world must undergo so many
meaningless games in between.
"Those games are not really serious," Hiddink confirmed. They win
all those games and then all of a sudden they have to play a powerhouse
from South America. Now they are in Asia it is better for their
Soccerphile was one of only three media outlets who made the effort
to engage perhaps the world's greatest coach at Australia's recent
training session in London, where he explained just why he took
on this new challenge:
"I had two other options but I did two World Cups in France or Korea,"
Hiddink told us, "and they were nice experiences for me so when
the Australian Federation asked me if I could help them out for
the qualification I said yes." One of those options we must assume
was from South Korea again, where the Dutchman achieved near God-like
status three years ago.
When Wales tried to take Brian
Clough on part-time all those years ago his club put their foot
down and said no, though Clough disagreed and Hiddink too thinks
it is possible to manage a club and a country at the same time:
"Being a club manager I am at the club all the time except on the
FIFA dates when all the international players are abroad so we can
manage it rather well."
When asked by Soccerphile to compare his phenomenal experience coaching
South Korea, whom he took unexpectedly to the World Cup semi-final,
with that of Australia, he replied,
"None of these guys has the experience of a World Cup but the Australians
are ahead at this stage because they are mainly playing in England
or Western Europe which gives them an advantage, but on the other
hand in Korea I could work with the players as a club coach and
be there full time. I had them more or less for sixteen months and
that was necessary as they were rather innocent in the world of
international football. I could work with them every day. With this
group their starting level is higher. The only problem is injuries
and the strategic problem – how to be even more clever against
very clever South American teams."
The South American foe to conquer is Uruguay again and the Aussies'
three-game losing streak at this summer's Confederations
Cup, where they conceded ten goals, will not have frightened
their opponents, a fact acknowledged by Middlesboro goalkeeper Mark
Schwarzer, when he spoke to Soccerphile after their 2-0 defeat to
"I think so yes. The South American teams will look at us in this
tournament and think we have got weaknesses and we definitely have
got weaknesses at the back we will have to work upon."
Hiddink also assured us that they have done their homework on
"We have our scouts over there and we have a lot of DVDs but also
we know a lot of the players from Europe. We are well prepared."
Uruguay, the first winners of the World Cup, might have held champions
Brazil twice in the qualifiers and beaten Argentina, but were also
on the end of some hammerings, losing away 5-0 to Colombia and 4-1
to Paraguay, and at home 3-1 to Peru and 3-0 to Venezuela.
They will sorely miss their and last season's Primera top scorer
Diego Forlan of Villareal, but still have Inter's enigmatic attacking
midfielder Alvaro Recoba available as well as the psychological
bonus of the two men who knocked Australia out last time: Malaga's
Richard Morales and Portsmouth's Dario Silva.
On paper Australia
should lose. Uruguay are from South America after all. But there
remain real causes for optimism, not least the natural advantage
conferred on the unfancied team.
"In one way we will probably go into the games again as underdog,"
Schwarzer went on, "and that means they will probably underestimate
us as they usually do."
Last time around Australia won 1-0 in Melbourne before crashing
3-0 in Montevideo in the return but this time they play at the Estadio
Centenario first before the second leg at the Telstra Stadium in
Sydney. Hiddink's opposite number Jorge Fossati will therefore surely
be looking to the Celeste to rack up the goals in the first leg
and not concede any away goals to Australia.
When asked by Soccerphile if the order of games was a bonus, Hiddink
however was less sure:
"There might be a little advantage playing away first and then home
second as there are just three days in between the first and second,"
he said, "Maybe a slight advantage but nothing more than that."
Given his vast experience you have no reason to doubt him.
"We are under no illusions about the task ahead of us. As fifth
placed finisher in South America, Uruguay is a powerhouse in world
football. I know the Uruguayan team is strong and they have players
in the big leagues in Europe so they are very smart."
But then Australia does too and can call on a host of players
with experience in the Premiership such as Brett Emerton, Stan Laziridis
and Tim Cahill, in Spain's Primera (John Aloisi) and in Italy's
Serie A (Mark Bresciano & Vince Grella).
Nevertheless, when Hiddink took over he found a rigid 4-4-2 system
that was not working and a general lack of tactical nous throughout
"When I started a few months ago I found that there was no balance,"
he admits. "Everyone was so committed they were over excited but
now everyone in his position knows exactly what to do. That does
not mean the execution is 100% but we have made good progress. The
Australian players are very committed," he told reporters, "and
you can see they are eager to learn but in a tactical way, in the
rhythm of the game, in the pace and the toughness of the game they
are lacking. There must be a balance between the commitment and
the strategic and tactical way to play."
Listening to Hiddink is illuminating after so many English managers'
Henry V-style oratory, as you are in the presence of a great footballing
brain that speaks from the mind and not just the heart. When he
tells you, "We hope to learn as soon as possible," you believe it
is not through blind optimism but fact-based reality.
"What I always try to do is get control of the opponent and see
whether they play with one striker or two strikers. In all cases
I want my teams to be in control and you have to be flexible in
defense. We have done a lot of strategic and tactical work."
Hiddink speaks plainly and is not ashamed to reveal well in advance
of the event that he may rest certain players from the first leg
and change the team's shape in the second:
"I have to look to see if it is convenient to bring all the players
and what I am always practicing is that we do not stick to one system
but be flexible. It might be in the first game but maybe in the
second game that we have to change our system."
Teamwork got Korea to within 90 minutes of a World Cup Final in
2002 and that must be Australia's main weapon this time too as in
terms of individuals, few really stand out. Arguably their two most
talented players, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, are not replicating
the stellar form in the Premiership they have displayed in previous
seasons whilst striker Mark Viduka is not the man he was at Leeds
United when Real Madrid were chasing him.
That said, they have some speedy and skilful attacking options
in the underrated Basel winger Scott Chipperfield, the only player
selected from Australia's A-League, Archie
Thompson, and their most recent find Jason Culina, who has joined
up with Hiddink at PSV and sounds right up his street:
"He is what I call a multi-functional player," says Hiddink. "He
can play in several spots in the attack or midfield. When you are
a running player like him you must cover the left or the right wings."
This may be the last hurrah for a number of the Socceroos and
Hiddink thinks that extra fillip may just give them a motivational
"For a lot of the boys it is their last time; they are around 28
or 30 so it may be a little advantage to play at home in the second
leg. With the past of Australian football and the fact they have
never reached the World Cup in thirty two years now they must be
confident in their own strengths."
The past has hung over Australian football like a millstone in
recent years, five play off failures since the mid 1980s an inherited
curse that needs lifting.
"We can compete with them and beat them. We just have to work hard,"
Hiddink's predecessor Frank Farina told Soccerphile in June about
their then unknown South American opponents.
Hiddink is blunter in his assessment, a typically Dutch trait
that in football is refreshing:
"I think it is a 60/40 to get there yes or no, 40 for Australia
that is. But we have to take the challenge."
The next few days will write either a glorious event in Australian
football history or another sad chapter of failure. At least they
have football's number one miracle worker on board:
"They asked me if I could achieve almost the impossible. Yes it
will be difficult for the Australian team but you never know how
we can make the little miracle happen. They have played each other
once and that was a bad result for the Australians. But I think
this team is so eager for a little miracle to come true."
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