The rebuilt Fritz Walter Stadion in Kaiserslautern is the setting for the opening match of day four of the 2006 FIFA World Cup between Australia and 2002 co-hosts Japan.
Holders Brazil are the overwhelming favourites to win Group F, but the race for second place is undoubtedly wide open – making this opening fixture already a crucial one. This will be the fifteenth meeting between the two nations, with the current score tantalisingly poised at five wins each and four draws.
For Australia it is only their second appearance at the World Cup Finals, and their first since West Germany in 1974 when they exited the tournament after the first round without scoring a goal. After several near misses, including a last-gasp away goals defeat by Iran in 1997 when under the stewardship of former England manager Terry Venables, Australia finally made it through to the World Cup Finals again via a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Uruguay in November.
The victory sparked scenes of wild celebration all over Australia, a country well known for it sporting fanaticism. With qualification assured and the early success of the newly-formed domestic ‘A League’, Australian passion for football is arguably at its highest ever level. This has resulted in a large upsurge in youth player registrations over the last twelve months, and record crowds and TV audiences for international and domestic matches.
Convincing the Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, to take charge of the team for the World Cup Playoff and for the finals was a major coup for the Australian FA. It gives Australia a live chance of reaching the knockout stages, despite their difficult draw with Brazil, Japan and Croatia. Hiddink is one of the world’s most respected and sought-after coaches. He has twice taken teams to the semi-finals of the World Cup (his native Holland in 1998 and co-hosts South Korea in 2002), has won six Dutch league titles with PSV Eindhoven and enjoyed a successful stint as manager of Real Madrid in the early 1990s. Earlier in the year Hiddink emerged as one of the frontrunners to take over for the departing England coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, before agreeing to take charge of Russia on a part-time basis after the finals.
Hiddink took charge of Australia in July 2005, following a disastrous Confederations Cup performance in Germany last summer when Australia conceded ten goals in three matches. He immediately began rebuilding his team from the back, the main area that will still cause him concern in the forthcoming few days.
There can be no doubt that improvements have been made, but the defence remains the weakest part of the team, and Australia’s chances of progression will depend on how much protection the back four offer the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, who was the hero of the penalty shootout win over the Uruguayans.
The signs are far better in midfield and attack for Australia, with the names Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano, Mark Viduka and Brett Emerton familiar ones to football followers all over the world. For all of them it represents their first chance to transfer their impressive European club form to the world stage and for skipper Viduka, who is 31 later in the year, it could be the last chance. The enigmatic Middlesbrough striker has enjoyed sustained success in England and Scotland and was a Champions League semi-finalist with Leeds United. When he is motivated he is a powerful, skilful and composed striker capable of gracing any tournament. Viduka himself is relishing the prospect of facing Japan and the prospect of scoring Australia’s first ever goal at the finals.
“The other day the boys were taking bets as to who’d score our first ever World Cup goal,” he said on Sunday.
“It would be great if it was me, but it would be better if we got all three points from our game with Japan. We’re just going to play our own style, we’re confident in our own ability. Everybody is a little nervous but we all feel proud to be involved.”
Viduka is likely to start this afternoon’s match as the lone striker, with Liverpool’s Harry Kewell and Everton’s Tim Cahill being given the licence to break forward to support him in attack. Cahill has become Everton’s most important and talismanic player over the last two seasons and has an excellent scoring record in the English Premiership for a midfield player. Kewell, who has been the golden boy of Australian football for almost ten years now, has shown glimpses of his old form for Liverpool in recent months after enduring a miserable, injury-plagued 2004-05 season when he even questioned his desire to continue in the game. He remains an elegant, beautifully balanced player with the ability to open up defences with his dribbling and shooting. Both Hiddink and the Australian fans will be hoping that he doesn’t show any ill effects from a couple of niggling pre-tournament injuries.
For Hiddink, the goal is a clear one – qualification for the knockout phase. Expectation is high amongst the media and fans alike back home. Australia is a nation used to sporting excellence, and the danger is that an embarrassing failure in the World Cup Finals could undo much of the progress made in the domestic game over the past twelve months.
“For some teams, getting to the finals is an achievement,” he stated in the run-up to the tournament.
“I’ve said to the players that our goal is the second round. Why not? In our group we have Japan and Croatia. Brazil are different, of course, and we are all vying for second place. I’m confident though that we can reach the second round.”
With Brazil lying in wait for their second match, the need to begin well this afternoon against Japan is of paramount importance.
Today marks the beginning of Japan’s third consecutive finals, and the co-hosts successfully reached the second round in 2002. They built on that impressive performance by winning the 2004 Asian Cup, and since that victory they have enjoyed impressive results against such strong teams as group rivals Brazil, Euro 2004 winners Greece and the Czech Republic.
The architect of their success in 2002, the French coach Phillipe Troussier, stood down after the finals and was replaced by Brazilian legend Zico. The former Brazil forward moved to Japan in 1991, in order to spend the final years of his glittering career there and facilitate Japan’s football development. He has held several key administrative positions within the Japanese FA, and was the natural and popular choice to succeed Troussier.
Zico’s style is far removed from the rigid, safety-first policy of his predecessor and there has been a significant transitional period. Zico favours an attacking, expressive Brazilian approach to the game with an emphasis on possession-based tactics. Much like Australia, Japan’s main concern is in defence, where their lack of height and lack of overseas experience will cause them problems. The first-choice back four and the goalkeeper all play in the J-League – in stark contrast to the midfield and attack, both of which are packed with players with experience of other leagues.
Zico is clearly worried about his defence, and is hoping the extra tactical training undertaken will pay dividends.
“We cannot do anything about the lack of height in our defence,” he told the media on Sunday.
“The players cannot grow several inches overnight, so we have done extra work to ensure that their marking is right.”
Japan’s warm up matches have told the media little in terms of their chances for progression. In late May they were lucky to escape with a draw at home to an inexperienced Scotland side, which ensured that alarm bells began to ring amongst the Japanese press. However, another draw in their final warm-up game against Germany has restored some of the self-belief.
“We are feeling right on top of the world at the moment after our draw with Germany and we can be brave,” the coach continued.
“However, we mustn’t get carried away and become over-confident as we know we are in a group with several good teams and must play to our best in every game.”
If Japan are to proceed to the second round they must begin with a positive result this afternoon. Their best chance of achieving this must lie with their impressive midfield, featuring the team’s undoubted superstar, Hidetoshi Nakata, Celtic’s Shunsuke Nakamura and the talented but fragile Shinji Ono, who was a revelation at the last World Cup but has struggled for form and fitness since.
The ability of the Japanese forward to test the potentially weak Australian defence is also of crucial importance. The probable starters, former Boca Juniors player Naohiro Takahara and the experienced Atsushi Yanagisawa, are not especially prolific at either club or international level. Despite their attacking tactics, where a feature will be the forward driving of both full backs, the ability of both men to convert their chances must be taken on trust. In a game where both defences are likely to be exposed, the superior ability of Viduka, and Cahill and Kewell from midfield may swing things in Australia’s favour.
By Mark Robinson
Australia: Schwarzer, Emerton, Neil, Moore, Chipperfield, Grella, Culina, Cahill, Bresciano, Kewell, Viduka.
Japan: Kawaguchi, Miyamoto, Nakazawa, Tsuboi, Komano, Nakata, Fukunishi, Nakamura, Alex, Takahara, Yanagisawa
Referee: Essam Abd El Fatah (Egypt)