The little-known Chinese city of Kunming will tomorrow become the focal point of the football world as Australia arrive to contest arguably the most intriguing 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier to date.
In the red corner stands a China side under fire and under pressure to kick-start their preliminary campaign, while in the gold-and-green will be Pim Verbeek's Socceroos, whose resounding 3-0 win over Qatar hinted at a return to the global stage they graced so impressively at Germany 2006. Verbeek himself has made a positive first impression on the increasingly fervent Aussie football public, with the experienced Dutchman already tipped as a worthy successor to Guus Hiddink.
"He's a different spice compared to Hiddink but I like it," is the verdict of star midfielder Tim Cahill. "The honesty and the discipline with Pim is excellent and he has a lot of class about him, charisma; the way he talks to players."
Verbeek's stints as assistant to Hiddink and Dick Advocaat with the South Koreans followed by a spell as No1 have also provided him with a wealth of knowledge about the Asian scene, expertise seen as crucial to an Australian team who endured an uncomfortable welcome to the AFC at last year's Asian Cup. November's Preliminary Draw ensured that this, the Socceroos' first AFC qualifying campaign, would be no easier, but while Iraq, Qatar and the Chinese make for a formidable trio of rivals, Verbeek told FIFA.com that he and his team are relishing the challenge.
FIFA.com: A 3-0 win over Qatar was the perfect way to start Australia's qualifying campaign, and your own managerial reign. I imagine you thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Pim Verbeek: I loved it. The experience was incredible and the result was obviously just what we'd all hoped for. People might not realise, but the Qatar squad had spent four weeks in training for that match, whereas we had only a couple of days. But the way we played, especially in the first half, was really excellent, and the fact we had scored three great goals before half-time meant I could really enjoy the occasion. From that perspective, with 50,000 in the stadium creating such a brilliant atmosphere, it's something I will always remember. You can see how much Australia is behind this team after what happened at the World Cup, and having that support gives the lads a great boost in terms of getting to South Africa.
This week sees you face one of your toughest qualifying challenges when you go up against China, which would be difficult enough at any time but will be especially difficult as the match takes place 1900 metres above sea level.
We believe we can beat them but it's undoubtedly a massive challenge. I've been to Kunming before with the Korean Olympic team and there's no doubt that the Chinese play their games there to make it as tough as possible for their opponents. You can't blame them for that, I suppose - they want to win and they'll use everything within the rules to help them do that. That's why the game is in Kunming rather than Beijing or Shanghai. They've been acclimatising themselves to the altitude since January but although it will be tough for our boys, I have faith that this is a team ready to compete in any circumstances. I certainly don't want any excuses. China will maximise what advantages they have but if we focus on our own qualities and the areas in which we are better than them, I think we can get what we want from the game.
A lot of people were surprised that Australia struggled so badly at the AFC Asian Cup. What was your own view?
It really wasn't all that surprising, I think. Everyone knows Australia have a good team but Asian football is totally different to what they have been used to, and it would be a little naïve to expect them to come in and adjust without any problems. Because most Australian players spend their careers in Europe, issues like the Asian climate and the different styles of football are completely alien to them. The unfortunate thing for them was that expectations were so high after the World Cup, probably unfairly so as it was their first time after all. Going forward, it should definitely help that I know a lot about Asian football - the players, the conditions, the difficulties - but there will still be some adjustment, I'm sure, and people will need to be a little patient.
Has the rapid development of the A-League been a major boost?
Absolutely. The A-League is doing really well; much better than I had initially expected. They are getting 25-to-30,000 people at every game now and when I went to the grand final recently, I loved every minute of it. The action, the atmosphere - everything was there. Australian football is really moving, you can see that.
There was, however, a bit of controversy recently when you said your players would be better training with a European club than playing in the A-League. Do you regret those comments?
It's a pity if I gave the wrong impression because I certainly didn't mean to insult anyone or criticise what has been achieved in such a short space of time. There has to be a realism though, bearing in mind that the league is still only a few years old and, compared to the big European leagues, still has a lot of development ahead. In fact, improving the overall level here in Australia is something I see as a big part of my job and as I've said already, the A-League definitely has a fantastic base to build on.
Traditionally, Australian sportsmen and women have a reputation for being 'winners' and the country certainly has a great pedigree in many sports. Do you see the Australian mentality lending itself to a successful future in football?
This is certainly as fit and sports-orientated a nation as you will see. When you go out, the streets and the parks are full of people jogging and playing sports, and I'm sure it's that mentality that has made Australia so successful in so many sports. As supporters, they're also incredibly passionate and patriotic - and it doesn't matter whether it's rugby, cricket, tennis, swimming or football. For me, as a foreigner coming in as national coach, it's absolutely fantastic to see. This is an amazing country for sport, and all the conditions are there for it to become a real force in football.
Having acted as assistant to Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat at previous FIFA World Cups, how different is it attempting to get there as a No1?
I'm enjoying it. In terms of being a No2, I must give a lot of credit to Hiddink and Advocaat because neither of them every made feel like an assistant. Both gave me so much responsibility that I always felt such a big part of what was happening. But I think every coach likes to be able to take the final decisions and I am enjoying that. To be honest, the main thing for me in coming here was to do something different. This wasn't about a career move for me, it was about taking on a challenge that excited me. And I think in football right now, this is one of best challenges around.