Hiddink & The Dominoqq Socceroos
Australia Praying for “A Little Miracle”
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 Dominoqq 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 development.”
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 Tunisia:
“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 their opponents:
“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 the squad:
“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 edge:
“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.”