Hiddink and the FA: the 'Roo' that got away

Australians' enhanced reputation has been down to the astute skills of a Dutchman who is bound for Red Square instead of Soho Square
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The Independent Football

An inaugural World Cup victory, and the world's most raucous merrymakers' ability to rock the foundations of the most historic of German citadels has shown no sign of abating. They acclaim not just the goalscorers Tim Cahill and John Aloisi, but a portly, silver-haired figure whose frame may be alien to that Australian homage to the body beautiful but whose uncanny feats of coaching prowess have endowed him with a sense of awe last observed when Crocodile Dundee rescued a Sheila in distress.

It was strange to recall, as one witnessed the aftershock of the explosion of euphoria which followed Australia's 3-1 defeat of the "Blue Samurais" of Japan, that at the start of the English Football Association's king-making process, Guus Hiddink was seemingly prepared for his investiture at Soho Square.

Which increasingly begs the question: what the hell is he doing heading for Red Square?

That reaction is not merely because Sven Goran Eriksson had reportedly told diners in a Stockholm restaurant that the Dutchman would be his successor, but because a record of galvanising Holland and South Korea to World Cup semi-finals carries more weight than just about anyone, with the exception of maybe World Cup winner "Big Phil" Scolari, who, embar-rassingly for the FA, declined their overtures rather publicly.

No doubt the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, and his colleagues will one day explain why Hiddink not only went missing, but to Russia, after this World Cup. What happened next to a contender who seemingly possessed all the attributes that England demanded may long embarrass those FA mandarins, particularly when a player such as Mark Viduka readily described Hiddink as the best manager he has ever worked with.

That would be the Mark Viduka currently employed by Middlesbrough, incidentally; managed until recently by one Steve McClaren...

Australia's progress has been remarkable since their only other appearance in a finals, in 1974, when they were defeated by East and West Germany, and drew with Chile, without scoring. They departed to spectacular images of a tournament in which Holland and Johan Cruyff bewitched us with the concept of "total football" and confirmed the reputations of that nation's coaches for years to come. No one would have predicted then that a convergence between a member of Holland's footballing aristocracy and Australia's impoverished status would come to pass in years to come.

It is no coincidence that there are four Dutch coaches here, three of them steeped in experience, and the contest between the 59-year-old Hiddink, South Korea's Dick Advocaat (two years his junior), Trinidad & Tobago's Leo Beenhakker (four years his senior), and Holland's rookie, Marco van Basten, is an intriguing sideshow to the entertainment in the big top.

"In big-pressure situations he makes big decisions and he has an uncanny knack of pulling them off, and he did it again against Japan," reflected the Blackburn defender Lucas Neill. "It was a masterstroke." Neill's club and Australia team-mate, the midfielder Brett Emerton added: "He's a great tactician; he looks at his training sessions in great detail and brings confidence to each and every player. When we were 1-0 down at half-time he told us to believe in ourselves, and go and play football."

Cahill's appearance from the bench, and just as crucially, that of Joshua Kennedy and Aloisi, had been the catalyst for Australia's late equaliser. Aloisi assumed that would be sufficient to satisfy Hiddink. "Do you want one of the strikers to drop back to midfield?" he asked Hiddink. "No," the coach said. "Let's go for it. Let's go for the win."

They did through a brace from Cahill and Aloisi. Hiddink, who succeeded Frank Farina in July 2005, is a big-time coach, principally because the Dutchman extracts the optimum from the talent at his disposal by placing the team ethos well ahead of individual concerns.

"I don't tolerate big egos," he once said. "That's not to be confused with big characters. I like that, along with individual skill, and individual thinking. I love that, but not big egos regarding vanity or false stardom." He feels there are cultural similarities between the Dutch and Australians. "The humour is good, it's ironic. They don't have what we call in Holland long toes, so you can't step on them. People don't get upset too easily."

Even if the Socceroos were to be eclipsed by Brazil today, it would cause negligible damage to the esteem in which he is held as the part-time Australia coach. His team, with three points, and Thursday's match with Croatia to follow, are still well-placed to qualify for the knockout stage. But who is anticipating defeat? Not players who are led by a national standard inscribed with the legend "Belief", one borrowed for two weeks - or could it be for longer? - from their cricket and rugby cousins. Given the fact that Australia's starting line-up is likely to include seven Premiership representatives, two from Serie A and one from the Dutch Eredivisie, Australia's boisterous followers can be forgiven some healthy optimism.

"We don't like to lose. We're very competitive as a country and maybe that's the reason football hasn't taken off in Australia," Emerton said. "But over the last few years we're growing and growing as a football nation and getting better, and at this World Cup we are proving that."

One Socceroos devotee told me she was concerned that it would be difficult to differentiate between the supporters, both clad in yellow and green. But it will not be hard to distinguish the playing styles. The perception of Australia as a team of dirty rotten scoundrels precedes them, unfairly so. Brazil's coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, will not be the first, or last, to emphasise their reputation to forthcoming officials. "Australia are a very physical team but we are not going to get into a fight with them. Our business is to play football, put the ball on the ground and impose our style and technique."

Ultimately, you suspect Brazil will. But not without more conviction than they exhibited against Croatia. Meanwhile, Everton's Cahill seeks to gain every last bit of psychological advantage when he deems that the match concerns "11 superstars against 11 honest Australian lads who are really looking forward to playing". He adds: "We have got a lot of respect for them but on the pitch it's going to be a different story. All we need to do against Brazil is not concede and we have every chance of beating them."

It is doubtful Shane Warne could put so much Aussie spin on a contest. As we have seen so many times before, who's to say that such self-confidence does not produce the desired effect?

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