Schwarzer that rare Australian - quietly confident

Boro keeper is happy to return to where he started - and aims to prolong the trip
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The Independent Football

The Phantom of the Opera mask the Sydneysider wore in that 4-0 defeat will be gone when he lines up for Australia against Holland at De Kuip in Rotterdam today. The cheekbone he fractured in Middlesbrough's FA Cup semi-final against West Ham in April has fully healed now. Schwarzer, though, will have his demons to exorcise.

The Socceroos, of course, would not be in Europe preparing for their first World Cup in 32 years without the heroics performed by their veteran goalkeeper in the second leg of their play-off against Uruguay in Sydney in November.

Schwarzer saved two kicks in the penalty shoot-out in the Telstra Stadium. Still, his selection for Australia's opening Group F game, against Japan in Kaiserslautern on 12 June, would appear to be dependent on a nightmare-free game against Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben and Co.

Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coaching master in charge of the Socceroos, left Schwarzer on the bench and gave Zeljko Kalac a chance to stake a claim for the No 1 spot for the showpiece warm-up game against Greece in front of a 95,103 crowd the Melbourne Cricket Ground 10 days ago. Kalac kept a clean sheet in an impressive 1-0 victory by Hiddink's highly organised side, though the 6ft 7in Milan goalkeeper - known as "Spider" - had no shots to save and was less than assured in his attempts to gather crosses into his web.

Schwarzer, however, needs a solid performance today to secure the satisfaction of a starting berth when the Socceroos kick off their World Cup adventure in the Fritz-Walter Stadion a week tomorrow.

The venue for Australia's opener was an unhappy home for Schwarzer in the 18 months he spent with Kaiserslautern. The son of German immigrants (his father, Hans, was a state-representative wrestler with Baden-Baden), the Middlesbrough goalkeeper holds a German passport and started his career in the Bundesliga - initially with Dynamo Dresden and then with Kaiserslautern. He was dropped from the first-team picture after just four games in the Kaiserslautern team who achieved the bittersweet double of relegation from the Bundesliga and victory in the German Cup final in 1996.

At the age of 23, he was offloaded to Bradford for £150,000 before his valuation swiftly rose to £1.25m. Now 33, he has spent nine years in England with Middlesbrough, eight of them in the Premiership.

"The fact that the finals are in Germany makes them that bit more special," Schwarzer confided. "It's a big thing for me because I started my career there and I didn't have a successful time. It's sweet to be going back for the World Cup."

It is also a return trip for Australia. Their only previous World Cup appearance dates back to the 1974 finals in Germany, when they failed to make a scoring mark, losing 2-0 to East Germany and 3-0 to West Germany and holding Chile to a goalless draw. That, however, was a very different Australian side. Mannfred Schaefer, the German-born centre-half who marked Gerd Müller, was a milkman.

All but two members of the 2006 squad play professionally in Europe, 11 of them in the English Premiership. Captained from the front line by Mark Viduka, they showed against Greece that Hiddink has moulded them into a highly effic-ient unit. And they outclassed the reigning European champions without Tim Cahill, who is expected to return today, and Harry Kewell, who is expected to be fit to be used from the bench as an impact player in Germany.

They might have Brazil to play (in Munich on 18 June) but, with Croatia also in their group and struggling for form, Hiddink's Socceroos are a good bet to make it to the second stage at least. "We always had the potential to do really well," Schwarzer reflected, "but we never managed to get over that hurdle of qualifying for the finals. Now that we've achieved that we're confident that we can go on and achieve great things at the World Cup - quietly confident, that is.

"In one way, I hope people don't take us too seriously because that gives us the upper hand. We've always had that advantage. Teams have tended to take us a bit lightly and we've gone out and proved them wrong - like we did against England at Upton Park a couple of years ago.

"The main thing is we have a coach who has unbelievable experience and who has been sought-after by a lot of people around the world. He doesn't want to be in charge of a team that just goes to Germany to make up the numbers. He knows what a World Cup is all about, so we couldn't be in better hands."

Those hands, of course, might have been controlling England's destiny after Germany 2006 - had the Football Association been sufficiently impressed with a curriculum vitae that includes two successive World Cup semi-final appearances.

As it is, the Russians are next in line for Hiddink's guidance - after his unfinished business with Schwarzer, Viduka and Co. Having steered the longshots of South Korea to the last four in 2002 (and, before that, Holland in 1998), it would be unwise to bet against the Dutchman defying the odds again.