Guus Hiddink, the celebrated Dutch coach who has guided three different sides to the FIFA World Cup™, is the latest international football figure to offer rave reviews of the country that will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa.
During his visit to the tip of the African continent, the coach, who is on his last lap of his employment with the Russian team, said he believes South Africa will play capable hosts to the tournament. He also hinted that the country’s national team, Bafana Bafana, might pose a threat to many teams if underestimated.
“I think this is a fantastic country with great infrastructure. I have no doubt that teams will be impressed with the facilities when they land in South Africa before the World Cup. It was the right time that the tournament was given to an African country and if you look around in Africa, with all respect to other countries, then South Africa was always going to be the best option,” he said.
The former Chelsea manager believes that while South Africa are underdogs, with the right preparation they can spring few surprises during the tournament. "Preparations are very important for any country that plays at the World Cup and for South Africa it will be vital that they prepare adequately for the event," he said. "You need to find the right balance and assemble not only a strong team but a balanced team. In [Carlos Alberto] Parreira, they have one of the most experienced coaches in the game today who knows how to prepare a team. He has a lot of experience and has been to a number of World Cup tournaments."
South Africa will play their opening game against Mexico on 11 June at Soccer City. They will then play Uruguay at Loftus in Tshwane/Pretoria before a face-off with France at Free State Stadium in Mangaung/Bloemfontein. Hiddink said it was important for the hosts to have a “perfect” start to the event if they plan to advance. “When you are a host country, you have a lot of pressure, but that pressure can either work for you or against you," he said.
"The 12th man in the stands is important because they can lift the team to another level. But sometimes the pressure can negatively affect the players. What is important is to get the campaign off to a perfect start - that lays the foundation,” added the former Australia coach, who knows all about coaching under-dogs in FIFA World Cups. He is credited for leading an unheralded Korea Republic team to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002. For him, he says, it was about rigorous training routine and fanatical fitness regime.
“When I took over South Korea, it was a huge challenge, and I knew that I needed a longer period to prepare," he said. "No one fancied the team to do well, but we used that [training] time to bond as a team and gain confidence. The most important thing was getting the guys super fit and instil a sense of belief in them,” he added.
Missing out on 2010, twice
The extensively-travelled mentor led the Netherlands to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in 1998 where they lost to Brazil on penalties. Four years later, he took charge of Korea Republic, who co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup with Japan. Again, he watched in agony as his Korean machine was brought to a grinding half by the German team in the last four. Despite the loss, he won hearts and devotion from the co-hosts. At Germany 2006, he was in charge of Australia.
He clearly would like to be one of the 32 coaches who will be operating on the touchline in South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Instead, he will be watching from the stands – having already made peace with the fact that his Russian team failed on the last lap to qualify for the world’s greatest showpiece. But the Dutchman was given another opportunity by the Côte d'Ivoire team, who had offered him the managerial position following the sacking of Vahid Halilhodzic from the Elephant’s hot seat.
He turned it down and has since signed a contract with Turkey. His visits to South Africa are now only low-key coaching clinics. “It was an honour to be approached by Côte d'Ivoire. I had talks with the federation, but it was unfortunate that I couldn’t come [to coach them]. They have quality players and a good team that has the potential to shine during the World Cup. Had I had doubts about their potential, I wouldn’t even have thought about a prospect of being part of their set-up. But that is now in the past and I wish them all the best,” concluded Hiddink.