Wizard of Oz wants England and Croatia

Palace's Socceroo applauds the wise ways of Hiddink as the implausible is contemplated
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The Independent Football

Anyone seeking a measure of Australia's current footballing confidence need look no further than Tony Popovic. With the draw for the 2006 World Cup just five days off, the Crystal Palace and Socceroos centre-back asserts he is "not too fussed" about which group he and his mates find themselves in next summer in Germany.

"I would like to play England, that would be great," he said. "But there are so many terrific footballing nations out there that we are bound to get one of the big boys. Also, with my Croatian background, I would love to get Croatia in our qualifying group." In other words, bring 'em on. And who is to scoff at this attitude after the Aussies eliminated those tough nuts from Uruguay in the play-offs last month? When the boys in green and gold take the field in Germany it will complete a neat cycle of progress for a nation whose sporting excellence has hitherto been achieved on other fields of endeavour.

It will have been 32 years since the Socceroos made their last, and only other previous, appearance at the game's summit, also in Germany, albeit it a divided Germany. All of which adds even more spice for Popovic, whose recent injury blues were banished when Guus Hiddink, the wise Dutchman who manages Australia, nominated him for the Uruguay clash despite the Palace man having played only once for his club this season before being sidelined with a calf injury.

It was only a week before Australia travelled to Montevideo for the first leg against Uruguay that Popovic was able to declare himself fit, so he journeyed more in hope than expectation. But Hiddink, described by Popovic as "a great manager, a great leader who prepares us so well", picked him for what he described as "the greatest game of my career to date" with the instructions to put aside his lack of match fitness and do a job.

The job was duly done as the Aussies escaped with nothing more harmful than a 1-0 defeat in the face of typical Uruguayan aggression and provocation. "The Uruguayans do whatever it takes to win," he said. "You don't really realise how far they take it until you play them."

For the return leg in Sydney, his home city, Popovic was chosen again, though this time he didn't last the distance. Having collected a yellow card after half an hour for a late tackle he was pulled off by Hiddink, who needed no telling that the Uru-guayans would be working hard at persuading the referee to add another yellow for someone still lacking full match-fitness.

Popovic's only regret from that memorable occasion, with 80,000 roaring them on, was that he was off the field for the penalty shoot-out since, as the Palace spot-kick king, penalties are his speciality. "I would have fancied being in that shoot-out," he said. "I've done it for my country before. It was a lot more nerve-racking on the touchline watching it all, because when you're involved you don't hear the crowd."

Popovic confided that, following that victory, "we really enjoyed ourselves in Sydney for the next couple of days". And who can blame them? "I don't think people appreciate how difficult it is to beat opponents like that. We aren't big-match hardened, considering we play only two big games every four years [in the World Cup play-offs] while Uruguay played 18-odd in their South American qualifying group. To get through against someone like that was special for the team and the country."

Popovic is confident Australia will do better than the 1974 team, who clocked up one draw (against Chile) and two defeats without managing to score a goal in a group which also included East Germany and West Germany. "We are a stronger team now because so many of the squad play in the top leagues around the world. And we will not be going just to make up the numbers." Having played 53 times for Australia since first making his debut in 1994, Popovic will be celebrating his 33rd birthday on 4 July 2006, towards the end of the World Cup. What better present, he says, than to be still in the tournament when he blows out the candles?