The Socceroos have qualified for the World Cup but are under pressure to be more adventurous.
By Les Murray in Sydney
Guus Hiddink, as Chelsea fans are probably suspecting, is a hard act to follow. If in doubt, just ask anyone from Australia, where the Dutchman is just about a deity, courtesy of the marvels he performed with the Socceroos in the previous World Cup campaign.
In just one year in charge he took the country to the 2006 finals – where the team had not been for 32 years – and into the last 16, where they lost to eventual winners Italy through a controversial dying-minutes penalty.
Hiddink moved on to coach Russia, leaving a void that was a thankless task to fill for anyone in a country where expectation of international success in any sport, much less the world game, is a cultural obsession.
Into it eventually stepped another Dutchman, Pim Verbeek, known then for being little more than a journeyman and assistant to Hiddink through his historic exploits with South Korea at the 2002 World Cup, then acting as No2 to Dick Advocaat in the same country’s fruitless run in Germany four years later.
Verbeek’s appointment came in dramatic circumstances. Following Hiddink’s exit, Australia experimented with his assistant, Australian Graham Arnold. But it was not a success as they failed to go beyond the quarter-finals of the following year’s Asian Cup and missed out on the lucrative pickings of this year’s Confederations Cup.
Secretly the Australians wooed Advocaat, coach of Zenit St Petersburg, who in August 2007 signed on the dotted line to become Socceroos coach once his contract with the Russian club was up at the end of that year. But faced with an irresistible counter-offer from Zenit, he reneged and walked away.
Australia closed ranks and quickly identified Frenchman Philippe Troussier and Verbeek as alternatives. Troussier set out an ambitious and aggressive blueprint – but, in the belief he was too high maintenance and disruptive, the choice went to Verbeek, whose demands were lower and more manageable.
Since taking over 18 months ago, Verbeek – despite a squad whose core still comprises veterans of 2006 and with new talent thin in the ground – has seen Australia qualify for South Africa with games to spare. His record of only three defeats in 20 games pleases him, the players and Football Federation Australia, but not all of the demanding public.
Verbeek’s perceived negative tactical approach goes against the grain of the nation’s sporting mentality. Australians build shrines to the mantra of “having a go” and, for most, nothing less will do.
More and more the results became less of a headline than the way of achieving them. Verbeek, of course denies he is a defensive coach – “I am Dutch, for goodness sake” – but his intransigent 4-2-3-1 formation, with two holding midfielders and a lone centre-forward, enumerates caution.
Verbeek says, predictably, he was employed only to take the Socceroos as far as possible in the World Cup and there is nothing in his contract about playing nicely. True, Australia finished top of their qualifying group, five points ahead of Japan, and are at an all-time high of 29th in FIFA’s world rankings. Where the jury is out is on how they will perform in South Africa.
Verbeek’s work in trying to achieve success there, never mind playing nicely, has only just begun.