Having left Australia for the Netherlands at just 17 years of age, Brett Holman knows all about proving himself. The Alkmaar winger had to wait six years before finally making his mark in the Eredivisie, but his hard work in relative anonymity during spells at Excelsior Rotterdam and Nijmegen ultimately paid off. His natural humility no doubt served him well too and it was much in evidence as the native of Bankstown in the suburbs of Sydney spoke with FIFA.com. Top of the agenda was the upcoming FIFA World Cup™, which for Holman and his fellow Socceroos is shaping up to be a genuine test.
“Our opponents in the first round all have great attacks so we really need to understand the importance of keeping our defensive solidity and retaining the same team spirit we had during the qualifiers,” explained the Dutch title winner with AZ in 2008/09. “That will be the essential part of our work during our preparations. The foundations are there, but we still have room to improve. Our leaders are our captain Lucas Neill and the goalkeeper Mark Schwazer. They’re the two main voices in the dressing room and they’re both defensive players – that’s not a coincidence.”
Drawn alongside Germany, Ghana and Serbia in Group D, Australia will need to be at their best to advance, but the players are optimistic rather than fearful. “Germany might need a match to get themselves going in the competition, so I think playing them right at the start is a good thing,” said Holman, conscious of the task awaiting his team, despite their superb route through qualifying.
After a marathon 14 matches in the Asian Zone, Pim Verbeek’s side became one of the first to book their ticket to South Africa. The Dutch coach’s tactical prowess paid off as Australia went unbeaten through their eight matches in the final phase, topping their section five points clear of Japan, with Bahrain and Qatar both far behind.
“Tactically, Pim is very strong,” said Holman. “He doesn’t speak a lot, but when he does it’s always very useful. His tactical mastery is the reason why our defence was so effective. He found a system that works. Having a European coach is a real bonus for the national team. The first battle on any pitch is tactical and we needed a European to make us more effective in that area.”
For his part, Verbeek has stated that his players will be “out to do better than last time”, when they were eliminated by Italy in the Round of 16. “You have to fix targets in life and we’ll do everything we can to go further than four years ago,” added the Dutchman.
That said, Holman, who was not selected for Germany 2006, prefers not to burden the team with too many expectations. “Having a target is good, but it mustn’t have a negative impact on us. Our only ambition is to prove that we deserve to be there and that we’re one of the top 20 teams in the world. Obviously, the elimination in 2006 is an added motivation for those who experienced it. We want to prove that we can do even better.”
The 26-year-old feels the Socceroos will be helped in achieving that aim by having had to qualify from the Asian Zone. “Playing in Asia rather than Oceania meant more competitive games as well as more matches in total, which meant we got together more often. That can only be positive.” Australia grabbed their place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup via the Oceania Zone, but boosted by their impressive performances in Germany, they clearly had no trouble adapting to a whole new set of opponents this time around.
Holman himself expects to adapt quickly to life at the global showcase, despite the knowledge that hundreds of millions of people will be watching on televisions around the world. “I’ve never felt pressure, to be honest,” he said. “I put more pressure on myself than anyone around me does, be it my family or my club. Because of that, I’m not afraid, even though this’ll be my first time. Of course, it’ll take me a few minutes to realise that I’m at a World Cup and get my bearings. After that, I’ll just have to prove that I deserve to be there.” Having always proved himself in the past, expect Holman to rise to the challenge.