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May 25, 2006

Long wait over for Socceroos

History

Australia's victory over Uruguay in the play-offs for the 2006 World Cup provided sweet revenge for their own exit from qualifying four years earlier and at the same time earned a return to the world stage after a 32-year hiatus.

The nation's only previous World Cup finals appearance came in 1974, coincidentally also in Germany, where they met Chile and both East and West Germany in the group stage. But they failed to score a goal, picking up a solitary one point in their final game with the South American nation - which finished goalless.

Since then the Aussies have found it extremely difficult to win a place in the finals. They found themselves in a footballing wilderness for many years, thrown into play-offs against politically isolated nations such as Iran, Taiwan and Israel. But often, even after facing that play-off they would then have to play a stronger European or South American nation - which would always prove a step too far.

In 1993, Australia had to face Diego Maradona and Argentina to qualify for the tournament the following year in the United States. Unsurprisingly, it was a hurdle they were unable to overcome.

Only since the tournament was expanded to 32 teams have they seen their hopes raised, meaning they were able to play-off against slightly weaker opposition to qualify.

Even so, it still required three attempts to finally earn a place back among the elite.

In 1997, with Terry Venables in charge of the side, Australia dramatically lost out to Iran. They were in front in Melbourne until two late strikes from the Asian nation took them to France.

Four years later, and another change of format left them needing to beat the fifth-placed team from South America to cement qualification for Korea/Japan 2002. But after overcoming Uruguay 1-0 in the home leg, they then went down 3-0 in the reverse.

That same qualifying campaign highlighted the huge gap in standards across Oceania, with Australia beating Tonga 22-0 and then setting a world record by obliterating American Samoa 31-0.

FIFA had already announced that Oceania would be handed a guaranteed place for the 2006 World Cup finals, but perhaps it was the nature of Australia's cakewalk through the region that led them to do a u-turn. Handing a permanent place to the Oceania region would be tantamount to handing a country a direct place in the finals.

There was an outcry in Australia when FIFA announced they would again have to play the fifth-placed team from South America, and it was ultimately a decision which led to the Australian FA to successfully apply to the Asia Federation to join their region ahead of qualifying for the 2010 competition - thus allowing them to compete in a region with automatic places.

However, Australia would book their place at the World Cup in 2006 with that revenge mission in their play-off match against Uruguay.

The key to their success seemed to hinge on a change of leadership. During qualification, Australia had parted company with long-term coach Frank Farina after they had disappointed at the 2005 Confederations Cup and their decision to replace him with Guus Hiddink proved to be a masterstroke.

Hiddink, who had remarkably led co-hosts South Korea to fourth place in the 2002 finals, instilled belief and organisation into the Australian team, and although they lost the first leg of their play-off 1-0 in Uruguay, there was much positivity in Oz for the return.

The Telstra Stadium in Sydney was packed with 83,000 expectant fans, with Marco Bresciano's goal taking the tie into extra-time. They eventually went through to the finals as Mark Schwarzer's penalty save sealed a 4-2 penalty shootout victory.

There is no doubt that Australian football has improved immeasurably over the last decade, largely due to the number of players based in Europe - in particular the Premiership. Though there has been much conflict over availability of the star players for international matches on the other side of the globe they have undoubtedly been made better players from the experience.

After being handed a tough-looking group - they will face hot favourites Brazil along with Croatia and Japan - Australia will see getting out of Group F as a major achievement. With several high-profile players there is every chance that they could cause plenty of problems for the opposition, but whether their defence is up to the task is another matter entirely.

The gaffer

Considered one of the best coaches in world football, Australia pulled off a coup when appointing Guus Hiddink as the successor to Frank Farina following an unsuccessful Confederations Cup campaign in the summer of 2005.

Hiddink, who combined the Australia job with his role as boss of Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, then masterminded the nation's qualification for the World Cup finals for the first time in 32 years.

Though he will leave both Australia and PSV in the summer to take over as Russia's coach ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifying programme he will be held in high regard by both for years to come.

After beginning his coaching career at De Graafschap he took over at PSV for the first time in 1987 and just a year later they lifted the European Cup to go with the three Eredivise titles he would win.

Following spells with Turkish club Fenerbahce and Valencia in Spain he returned home to coach the Netherlands into Euro 96 but found his time in charge of the national team dogged by infighting within the squad. He resigned after his side had lost out to Brazil on penalties in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup.

Hiddink then spent a year at Real Madrid but was sacked after failing to deliver the title. And after a brief three-month stint at Real Betis in 2000 he accepted the opportunity to coach co-hosts South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Few could have predicted the impact Hiddink would have on a national team which had never previously made any kind of impression on the world stage. Roared on by a passionate home support and with an organisation, tactical awareness and belief not seen before the South Koreans amazingly made it to the semi-finals before bowing out to Germany, and losing the 3rd/4th place play-off to Turkey.

Hiddink became the first-ever person to be given honorary South Korean citizenship and, among a raft of other accolades, the World Cup stadium in Gwangju was renamed Guus Hiddink Stadium.

The coach again returned to Holland in 2004 and opted to accept a second spell in charge of PSV. The club had seen many of its star players sold off and few gave them any chance of coming even close to a title challenge. That they stormed to a domestic double of league and cup spoke volumes for Hiddink's methods. And PSV also caused upsets on the European stage, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League before going out to a late, late AC Milan goal. PSV repeated their double act in 2005/06.

Despite the responsibilities of managing an Eredivisie side, Hiddink accepted the challenge of leading Australia to the World Cup prior to the start of 2005/06. Twelve months later, and a successful play-off victory over Uruguay, and Hiddink is at his third successive finals. A third successive semi-finals appearance would surely be his finest achievement as a coach.

His decision to leave the Australia job in the summer came as no surprise, due to the nation's cyclical involvement in truly competitive football.

Hiddink was installed as the favourite for the England manager's job before the 2006 World Cup, but his anger at the FA's selection policy led him to pull out of the race and accept an over to take over as Russia coach. After years of under-achievement, Russia fans could not be blamed for having a bit of optimism.

One to watch

Harry Kewell made his international debut for Australia in April 1996 in 3-0 defeat by Chile, just a month after he'd made his professional club debut for then-Premiership outfit Leeds United.

Before long his driving runs either down the left flank or playing in an advanced striking role would make him a household name both in Australia and England. Kewell earned a reputation as a deadly shooter from distance, a creator of goals and a constant danger to the opposition.

The winger netted his first Australia goal against Iran in the France 98 play-off against Iran in Tehran but from then on, with the pressure of club committments, he often shied away from international duty.

That led to a love-hate relationship with the Australian fans (they love him when he plays, hate him when he doesn't), but Kewell represents perhaps Australia's most lethal weapon going into the finals.

Kewell may not be the player he was four years ago when in his pomp at Leeds United, but he enjoyed a certain resurgence in 2005/06 in his second season with Premiership side Liverpool.

His first term an Anfield, following a £3million move from Elland Road, was an unmitigated disaster. Heralded as the player capable of transforming Liverpool from Premiership also-rans to title contenders, Kewell spent much of the season on the treatment table and when he did play looked a shadow of his former self.

Many felt his Liverpool career was over when he lasted only the first 45 minutes of the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan, When taken off, looking way off the pace and struggling once again, Liverpool were three goals down and seemingly heading for defeat. That they turned the match around without him on the pitch only served to add fuel to the fire.

Though he may not yet be back to the dazzling form of yesteryear he has turned around his career on Merseyside. Now enjoying the adulation of the Reds fans, he was an important member of the team which finished third in the Premiership and reached the final of the FA Cup. The left-sided midfielder even rediscovered his penchant for a spectacular goal.

While he was a firm favourite with Leeds fans, the same could not always be said about the Australian public. He was accused of picking and choosing his game for Australia, reluctant to make the long trek back for just one game of football.

That perceived reluctance led to anger from Aussie fans, but he proved against Uruguay in the World Cup play-off second leg that ability is often no substitute for effort.

With fitness and form he will be crucial to the Socceroos' hopes of making it into the Round of Sixteen.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.