Australia hope to inspire next generation
In 2005 Australia left the FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany after losing each of their three group games against Germany, Argentina and Tunisia.
Many expected the same fate to befall them when they were placed in a group with Brazil, Croatia and Japan . However, with the lessons they learned 12 months previously and the guidance of coach Guus Hiddink, appointed in the wake of the Socceroos' disappointing showing last summer, a stronger side emerged on their return to the world stage.
Their performances showed that Australia could hold their own against some of the world's finest footballing sides and even do better against teams who had more recent FIFA World Cup experience under their belts, in the case of Croatia and Japan. Their Germany 2006 journey also inspired a new interest in football back home, with many fans watching the matches in the early hours of the morning.
"We came here as a lowly ranked team, lucky to make it in the eyes of the world, but the world has taken notice, big time, of what Australia has done," said Football Federation of Australia chief executive John O'Neill.
When Australia qualified for their only other FIFA World Cup appearance, also on German soil in 1974, they failed to score a single goal and were eliminated in the first round. This time around, they not only showed great spirit, but they played a brand of football, inspired by Hiddink that not only gained hard-fought results but was exciting for the spectators who watched them.
Australia showed at this FIFA World Cup that being well organised does not mean that a team has to play defensively. True, the Dutch coach was helped by working with a committed group of experienced players, determined to make the most of their appearance at football's showpiece event.
They scored three goals in the final eight minutes to come from behind and defeat Japan in their opening match. In their second group game with Brazil, they matched the world champions until two second-half goals ended their hopes of gaining a draw. Needing a point to qualify for the Round of 16 against Croatia, they came from behind twice to score the point they needed. Then, in the Round of 16 match against Italy, an upset looked as it was on the cards until they were denied by a last-minute penalty .
After the match Hiddink said: "It is bitter to see us concede in the last second but overall when the emotions have gone down a bit, I can be very proud of this team, especially because of how well we played in the three group games and in this game against a highly regarded team like Italy."
His captain, striker Mark Viduka was in agreement. "There are far more positives than negatives," he said. "I think we've got a lot of new followers because of the way we played. I think everyone now knows we can match it with the big boys."
Now the Socceroos must get used to life without their inspirational Dutch trainer. Hiddink has agreed to coach Russia until the end of UEFA EURO 2008 at least and now the FFA is looking for a man who can inspire similar results. "From the little feedback we're getting the federation understands how important a big coach is for us," commented midfielder Vince Grella. "Obviously, big coaches mean big money but if we want to build the team we have to start the next time we come together, our plan should be straight away for the next World Cup preparation and take on the positives and some things we could do better."
As the newest members of the Asian Football Confederation, the Australians' first assignment is the AFC Asian Cup in 2007. With this in mind, Hiddink has given his previous employers some free advice. Time will tell if they decide to listen.
"You have to analyse this World Cup and also look ahead to the future and look at the players and what ages they are," said Hiddink. "Maybe they have to step back a bit and start building not a totally new team, but consider whether some of the players will be there at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
"In the coming years the FFA have to consider that and talk to the players. If they still want to have a new era, then they can't wait for six months or a year. They must make a new project through to 2010, via the Olympic Games in 2008."
By the time 2010 comes round, Australia may have lost influential performers like Viduka, Craig Moore and Mark Schwarzer, but with a top-quality coach and a blueprint for future success, the new generation could at the very least emulate the achievement of the class of 2006. Indeed, having been galvanised by their showing in Germany and backed by a country bitten by the football bug, this is a nation where the beautiful game could flourish for many years to come.