Australians ready to take on world with a different-shaped ball

With Hiddink's help the Socceroos finally join the élite for a World Cup already full of surprises
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The Independent Online

Tempting as it would be to describe football as the new cricket in Australia and the West Indies, it has in fact been so for some time, at least in terms of numbers participating. If World Cup success has usually been associated with either a smaller ball or an oval one, the dramatic victories last Wednesday that earned Australia and Trinidad and Tobago a passage to Germany next summer will ensure the continuing popularity of the world game from Brisbane to Perth and from Port of Spain to Kingston.

British football, too, will take an extra pride in having another dozen or more performers from these isles at the finals, with Luton Town, Port Vale, Dundee and Falkirk now among those to be represented. There is even the added bonus of knowing that the perennial cynics of Uruguay, unloved opponents of England at the opening game of 1966 and Scotland 20 years later, will be the only former winners not present.

Australia's Socceroos, who continue to come on in leaps and bounds, ensured the South Americans' absence by restricting them to a single goal in the first leg last weekend, then retrieving it in front of an 85,000 crowd in Sydney's Telstra Stadium before coming through a penalty shoot-out in which Middlesbrough's Mark Schwarzer made two outstanding saves. Having one of the Premiership's best goalkeepers between the posts is not the only reason for believing the Aussies can improve on their only previous appearance at the finals - also in Germany - 31 years ago.

On that occasion a team composed mainly of immigrants offered gritty if futile opposition against the two Germanys, East and West, before holding Chile 0-0, so there was one point to show for their adventures, if not a single goal. Such an outcome would be hugely disappointing this time, however tough the group they end up in.

It is likely to be a tricky one, as only Angola of the 32 qualifiers have a lower world ranking; the defeat of Uruguay, a top-20 team, will push Australia up a few notches from 54th, but in the seedings they are certain to be in the lowest of the four pools. Meeting, say, Brazil, Holland and Portugal (the latter are likely to be in the third pool due to their poor World Cup record) would constitute the grimmest of groups of death, but a combination like Mexico, South Korea and Saudi Arabia would offer every chance of advancement.

If countries were ranked on the ability and experience of the coach, Australia would be in the world top 10. Guus Hiddink took South Korea to the last four of the last competition, which even for a host country was a stunning feat. Portugal, Poland, Italy and Spain were beaten along the way, on nights that will never be forgotten by anyone who was in Seoul, before a narrow 1-0 defeat by Germany in the semi-final.

This autumn, Hiddink has run the Australian team on a part-time basis, on release from his day job at PSV Eindhoven. The Australian Federation would have been smart to have contracted him well beyond the finals, ensur-ing that if England, for instance, came calling, there would be heavy compensation to pay.

The Dutchman, who also took his own country to a semi-final in 1998, has brought that little bit of finesse to the job lacking in the previous incumbent, Frank Farina, who was once ordered by the federation to take an anger-management course and was replaced after a high-scoring but unsuccessful appearance at last summer's Confederations Cup.

With Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell injured, Australia demonstrated some of their potential there in going down only 4-3 to the hosts, Germany, and 4-2 to Argentina, but were less resilient in a 2-0 defeat by Tunisia.

Those two high-profile players need to be fit and in the mood if the Socceroos are to prosper. That was certainly the case in Sydney: Viduka missed in the penalty shoot-out but he helped Kewell set up the goal for Parma's Marco Bresciano with a clever back-heeled touch. Kewell, still causing frustration at Liverpool and dropped after the first game, was shrewdly brought on as an early substitute for Tony Popovic after Hiddink noted that the Crystal Palace defender had been fortunate to avoid a red card for elbowing Uruguay's most dangerous player, Alvaro Recoba.

Much credit is clearly due to another wily Dutchman, Leo Beenhakker, for steering Trinidad and Tobago through. Like Hiddink, he was brought in at a late stage and immediately had a significant effect, with four wins in the final seven qualifying games, then a deserved 1-0 victory in Bahrain on Wednesday.

Dwight Yorke, now at Sydney FC, may be a midfield stroller these days but that smile, like Aussie panache, will be a welcome addition to the party next summer. Football, lovely football.

Shock Tactics: Three the rest should fear

GHANA

Chelsea's Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah of Fenerbahce form a fearsome pair of central midfielders, who drove Ghana to qualify for the first time. They did the double over South Africa, the group favourites, and conceded only four goals in 10 games. African Nations' Cup winners four times, they will be studied carefully at that competition in January. A combination of power and skill make them one to avoid in the draw. Fifa ranking: 51.

IVORY COAST

A draw on neutral ground last week with Italy, who equalised late on, illustrated a new confidence. They qualified when Cameroon missed a penalty in the last minute of their final qroup match. Didier Drogba, who scored with a deft touch against Italy, bears a heavy load, but striker Aruna Dindane is not to be underestimated. Arsenal's Kolo Touré is in defence; St Etienne's Didier Zokora, a Manchester United target, is in midfield. Fifa ranking: 48.

UNITED STATES

Playing so often against Central American and Caribbean opposition means the US, like Mexico, benefit from a deceptively high Fifa ranking (seventh, above England and Italy). But here they are for their fifth successive World Cup, with more and more players attuned to European football. Voluble coach Bruce Arena led them to a quarter-final in 2002 (losing 1-0 to Germany) and will hope to come through the first group.

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