Monday, July 03, 2006
Saint Guus - Part 1
During the World Cup I have given a lot of thought to "Aussie Guus" and his status, real or imagined, in the history of Australian football. He has been canonised in the media (Australian football scribes showing once again that equivocation is not their strong point), and adopted wholeheartedly by the fans.
Yet there were a couple of things that rankled with me initially about Hiddink. In particular, his initial claim that he had taken the Australia job in order to work "a miracle" of World Cup qualification was an insult to our players, in my view. Man for man, they were and are a match for any South American team outside the top two. The team was stronger than four years ago with the addition of Cahill, Grella, Bresciano, Neill and others, and to pretend that it would be a David versus Goliath encounter was extremely misleading (if very good PR).
So, what sort of a man is he? The misprint-ridden biography rush-produced before the World Cup gave few indications. It seemed to imply that his career had been one glorious ascent, which was patently untrue.
In Germany, I had the chance (Paul and Shane, my undying thanks!) to ask some of the more respected figures in football journalism their opinion about Hiddink. The responses were invariably positive.
Keir Radnedge: "He's just a really good guy. Simple as that."
Martin Tyler: "He's absolute top quality. Both as a coach and as a person."
Brian Glanville: "Best coach at the tournament."
Hard to argue with that bunch of heavyweights.
And Hiddink the person certainly won me over in Stuttgart. His "performance" at the press conference after the frantic finish to Australia v. Croatia was memorable, and not just from a PR point of view. The Aussie scribes applauded gently as he entered; he blushed noticeably and whispered "Don't applaud the coach."
He went on to give an articulate, astute assessment of the game; he explained, with a little reluctance, his reasons for picking the hapless Zeljko Kalac ahead of Mark Schwarzer, and picked out the problems that remained to be solved before the meeting with Italy. Crucially, he spiced his comments with a wit and candour which provided a stark contrast to the strangulated media efforts of Frank Farina.
It was soon the turn of Harry Kewell. As the Liverpool star headed for the hot seat, Hiddink heaved to his feet. Having just eulogised Kewell at length, he glanced at Harry and quipped, "Harry, I just told them you played a real lousy game."
As a parting shot, it couldn't have been better.
Hiddink's public persona has exuded a confidence which rubbed off on everybody. Whatever Frank Farina's record with the national team, it's not exactly controversial to assert that an aura of pessimism hung around him. He rarely appeared on top of any situation, and could be unbearably prickly with the media. That certainly changed under the Dutchman.
However, most of the eulogising of Hiddink tended to centre around his tactics. Certain epithets were attached with monotonous regularity to decisions of his which had come off, while the players were generally blamed when things went wrong. So, in the cold light of day, what really happened with Australia's tactics at the World Cup (and before)?
Tune in again soon.
Essentially Hiddink is the professional Vegas poker player, knowing when to take risks, playing the odds and cautiously moving forward. His personability is first class and his motivational skills exemplarly.
He'll be a hard act to follow. And I suspect an impossible act to follow in many, many ways.