Wed, May 24, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Socceroos ready to make comeback

RENEWED VIGOR After decades of despair, the Australian team has been rebuilt under the shrewd guidance of Dutch miracle worker Guus Hiddink

AFP , SYDNEY

Members of the Australian national soccer team, including captain Mark Viduka (9), Tim Cahill (4), John Aloisi (15), Luke Wilkshire (20), Mark Schwarzer (1) and Lucas Neill (2), take a jog during a team training session in Melbourne yesterday morning. The Socceroos will meet Greece in a friendly tomorrow night at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in the lead up to the World Cup next month in Germany.

PHOTO: AP

Australia have taken 32 tortuous years to earn a second crack at the World Cup, but return to Germany with higher hopes than their part-time trailblazers back in 1974.

Then the anonymous immigrant-dominated team had to take holidays from their jobs to get to Germany. The 2006 home-grown Socceroos come predominantly from European clubs with many of their players well known to the soccer world.

The Australians didn't score a goal in their last World Cup sojourn, going down 2-0 to East Germany, 3-0 to eventual champions West Germany and drawing 0-0 with Chile.

But refashioned under the shrewd guidance of Dutchman Guus Hiddink, the Australians believe they are not just making up the numbers in Germany, but can make it through to the second round from Group F, headed by champions Brazil, and including 1998 semi-finalists Croatia and Japan.

Alaves striker John Aloisi's successful penalty in the 4-2 shoot-out play-off win over two-time winners Uruguay last November has the Socceroos believing more can be achieved under miracle worker Hiddink at soccer's biggest event.

Hiddink achieved World Cup qualification with the Socceroos just under four months after replacing Australian Frank Farina, sacked after Australia leaked 10 goals at the Confederations Cup in Germany last June.

Hiddink, who has taken Netherlands and South Korea to the semi-finals of the last two World Cups, is off to Russia after next month's finals and is looking to make another impact on world soccer's elite with the unfashionable Australians.

But all this optimism follows decades of despair as Australia suffered continual setbacks and heartbreak in their bid to reach the pinnacle tournamnet of world soccer.

Seven failed campaigns followed their 1974 World Cup debut, among them to Argentina (2-1 on aggregate in 1993), Iran (on away goals in 1997) and Uruguay (4-1 on aggregate in 2001).

Soccer domestically struggled for credibility after decades of ethnic rivalries and bureaucratic vendettas that had left the sport languishing. But under Australia's richest man, Frank Lowy, and former Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill, Australian soccer was reformed and now has a new A-League and integration with the Asian Football Confederation which offers direct World Cup places and tougher opposition than Oceania.

The talk here is about what the Australians might actually achieve in Germany.

The prevailing mood is typified by skipper and Middlesbrough striker Mark Viduka.

"I think we can do something over there. We're not going just to make up the numbers. We can go there and play some good football," he said.

"It's just that hurdle of finally making the World Cup finals that we had to get over and we've done that," Viduka said.

Everton midfielder Tim Cahill, who is racing to recover from a knee injury to be fit for Germany, said: "This is the biggest moment we'll ever have as footballers on the world stage."

"This is the first chance we get to express ourselves and to show the world what we're made of. We've got a lot of players who play in the English Premier League and all over the world who are performing well," Cahil added.

Hiddink has developed a strong, technically-sound five-man midfield of Parma's Vince Grella and Marco Bresciano, PSV Eindhoven's Jason Culina, Blackburn Rovers' Brett Emerton and Cahill.

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