Guus Hiddink, pragmatist, strategist and gambler
It is perhaps too early to assess Guus Hiddink’s contribution to Australian football, but it is already clear that he has had a significant impact and not necessarily for the reasons sometimes advanced. It has become fashionable in certain football quarters to be a devotee of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, used and promoted by big Phil Scolari, coach of Brazil when it won the World Cup in 2002 and currently leading Portugal to a quarter-final clash with England. That book was written more than 2,500 years ago, but I would turn to more recent generals for a view on the Dutch master. Napoleon once asked of one of his generals, ‘Is he lucky?’ and his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was ‘ a damned close-run thing’. Hiddink, of course, might reply with Samuel Goldwyn, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’.
The Australian players will point to the way that Hiddink has worked them hard so they had the fitness to play a succession of World Cup matches to a finish. They remark on how he has got them playing a high tempo passing game to create chances starting from deep in defence. He has everyone working behind the ball when not in possession and supporting each other in zonal rather than man-to-man defence. He has imparted his knowledge of what is required for success in top-class international competition. The players marvel at his attention to detail, meticulous planning and clear appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. He helped install a self-belief that the Socceroos could be competitive against any opposition.
Yet Hiddink himself revealed this week his fondness for card games and how he could beat the boys but was beaten in turn by a woman. Maybe this is the clue to his success with Australia, his gambling instinct. Look at all his competitive matches with Australia and it is one series of gambles, some of which came off and others which failed, but out of which he finally emerged with unprecedented success. In the away qualifier with Uruguay he started with three outright attackers, including the untried Archie Thompson, yet got a scoreline, a narrow one-nil loss which made recovery in the home leg possible. Uruguay missed several chances and this game was really the basis of all that happened later. Uruguay is the only country that has won the World Cup which is not playing in the quarter-finals in Germany in 2006.
In the home leg, Hiddink started with an extra defender, though he needed to win the game. Had Tony Popovic been given a red card for his foul on Uruguayan playmaker Alvaro Recoba, there would have been no replacement by Harry Kewell and no shanked shot which fell kindly for Marco Bresciano’s equalising goal. Then he was about to bring on Zeljko Kalac for the penalty kicks when Brett Emerton was injured and Josip Skoko was given his only period on the field in a competitive match by Hiddink. Big Spider might have saved penalties, but Mark Schwarzer certainly did so, enabling John Aloisi to take us to Germany.
In Germany the gambles continued. Three attackers were added to chase the game against Japan, and a critical result in the last eight minutes of play. When playing Brazil Hiddink left out our best passer of the ball and the most effective dead-ball striker, Josip Skoko. This time, I would argue, he cost Australia a result. Against Croatia Hiddink gambled once again on Kalac, only to find the big keeper having a nightmare, but his team pulled him out of that one thanks to a penalty and a goal by Kewell, which some considered to be offside.
Finally, against Italy, John Aloisi was the only change with ten minutes to play. Did Hiddink gamble that he could throw on fresh legs in extra-time and overrun the ten men of Italy? If so this is another gamble which failed, and that is always the fate of gamblers. One day, when the stakes are highest, the big punt fails. But then this has never been something which has worried many Australians and that may be why Aussie Guus hit it off so well with us.
(This article appeared on the Football Federation Victoria website on 30 June 2006.)