Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Saint Guus, Part 3

I've talked about Guus Hiddink's contribution to Australia's tactical fluidity; now, to some of his other legacies.

During my time at the World Cup, more than one foreign journalist expressed to me their approbation of the Australians' speed and stamina. I think it's fair to say, pace the Germans, that Australia was the fittest side in the tournament. Although it's probably the case that Hiddink was only partly responsible for this, it has been a feature of many of his recent charges.

The South Korean side of 2002 impressed in many ways; their teamwork was admirable, their defensive organisation sound, and individual talents like Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chun-Soo gained plenty of deserved plaudits. But the thing that really caught the eye, in my opinion, was their fitness.

Against the Germans in the semi-final, coming off two games that had gone into extra time, they ran themselves ragged towards the close in search of an equaliser. One may well have come, in fact, but for Michael Ballack's disgracefully cynical foul on Lee as he raced for goal late on.

Then, in the third-place playoff, they went two early goals down to the Turks. Tired minds, one believed at the time. But tired legs? Nothing of the sort. In the second half, they assailed Rustu Recber's goal mercilessly in their attempts to make up the deficit. Despite a late goal, they failed to do so, but their second-half assault made the game one of the most entertaining of the tournament.

Not for a moment would you have believed that this was a team that had played seven games in four weeks, two of them going beyond ninety minutes.

Hiddink's PSV side, during its inspired run in the 2005 Champions' League, was similarly tireless. In coming within an inch of pipping the favourites Milan for a place in the final, they ran rings around the rossoneri in that semi-final second leg in Eindhoven.

And so to the Socceroos. Many of the players mentioned how hard Hiddink had pushed them physically in training, but during the tournament one could see the results. Against Japan, Australia still looked fresh during the closing stages, while the Japanese appeared dead on their feet. The Brazilians were simply embarrassed in the fitness stakes against Australia, particularly in the first half.

Many fans wondered why Josip Skoko, so impressive for the Socceroos in 2006, did not take the field in Germany. My guess is that Hiddink preferred to keep faith with his fitter players. Skoko has never thrived on his running; he relies on quickness of thought rather than endless stamina, classy technique and telling through-balls rather than pace. He didn't quite fit in with the ethos of a Hiddink side.

Against Italy, again Australia looked the sharper team, despite the rigours of the Croatia battle and the fact that the Italians had had the luxury of an extra man for much of their previous two encounters. Yet, in the end, it didn't help.

Next up in the Hiddink review: the actual nuts and bolts of his tactics and selections. What went right...and what didn't.

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