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Wednesday, November 9, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: November 21, 7:22 PM UK
If you know your history

Steve Wilson

Melbourne, November 20 2001. Substitute Paul Agnostino races into the penalty area to meet a perfectly weighted centre from Harry Kewell but finds his progress impeded by Uruguayan defender Paolo Montero. Italian referee Graziano Cesari points immediately to the spot and, with ten minutes left to play, Australia have the chance to turn their territorial advantage in the first leg of an inter-continental play-off into something more tangible.

Up steps Kevin Muscat to slot the ball home and the match ends 1-0 in Australia's favour. The celebrations go on well into the night in the knowledge that the Socceroos are just one match, and a draw at that, away from a first World Cup finals since 1974; the only time they have qualified.

  • Kevin Muscat talks to Soccernet

    Five days later and celebrations turned to mourning. A 3-0 victory for the home team in Montevideo turned the tie on its head and it was the two-time champions who were heading to the Far East.

    The post-mortem asked questions of both coach Frank Farina's tactics and the players' mental strength. It seemed this highly skilled bunch of professionals had frozen; bottled it, to use the Aussie vernacular.

    The passion and sheer malevolence of the Uruguayan support seemed to spook them. This poisonous atmosphere had infamously extended out of the ground to the airport arrivals lounge where the locals had reminded the visiting players, in no uncertain terms, how much football in general, and the World Cup in particular meant to this proud nation of just three and a half million.

    Fast forward four years and the two sides meet again under similar circumstances, with the prize for the victor the same.

    Groundhog day? For Australia recent World Cup qualifying campaigns have been as predictable as a hot summer in Darwin. The undisputed kings of the Oceania region have tasted play-off defeat after walking their qualifying group three times in a row. They are not intent on allowing history to go on repeating itself.

    Diego Maradona's Argentina in 1993 and the Uruguayans last time round were hard to take but over the two legs they were beaten by better teams. The real chocker came in qualification for France 98 when they conspired to throw away a two goal lead, at home, in the last 15 minutes of a match they had dominated. With both legs drawn, Iran advanced on the away goals rule.

    'I was only in my early 20s at the time,' reflects Mark Viduka, now 30 and charged with the task of leading the line over the two matches, 'and I've never felt hurt like that in football. That definitely ranks as the single most disappointing game in my career. We were heartbroken as we were just a few minutes from reaching France 98. It was an awful experience.'

    Licking their wounds from the latest play-off heartbreak, Australia were left to pick themselves up and go through the whole tortuous process again, still wondering where it had all gone wrong.

    There had been genuine belief that this time would be different. The summer of the same year had seen them perform miracles in the Confederations Cup, finishing third after wins over Mexico, World Champions France and Brazil.

    But after World Cup elimination it was to get worse before it got better, a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Tasman rivals New Zealand in the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup marking the nadir of Farina's reign and raising serious questions over whether he should continue to lead the country.

    Such thoughts were forgotten for a time when an Australian side containing Premiership quality in Viduka, Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and Mark Schwarzer humbled England for the first time, in London - the double pleasure of asserting their talent against top level opposition dovetailing with putting one over the Poms greedily enjoyed by those in green and gold.

    Routine victories over the likes of Tahiti, Fiji and Vanatua ensured that another tilt at South American opposition was quickly assured but a 2-2 draw with lowly Solomon Islands meant Farina's relationship with certain parts of the local media was becoming strained.

    Considering himself the victim of unfair criticism, the friction fuelled a heated confrontation that led to FFA chief executive John O'Neill prescribing anger management counselling for his coach.

    After a tepid 2-1 friendly victory over Iraq, Farina had given SBS reporter Andrew Orsatti a series of short, perfunctory answers in a post-match interview. Off camera Orsatti confronted the Australia coach and an altercation took place.

    Hot on the heels of this came a disastrous, and winless, Confederations Cup 2005 and Farina's six year tenure ended.

    Against this backdrop of discontent and lack of form one might imagine that Australia enter the do-or-die contest with Uruguay with some trepidation, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    PSV Eindhoven boss Guus Hiddink, a former European Cup winner, was installed as coach in July and a sea change in application and confidence has occurred.

    'Our new manager is amazing,' enthuses Viduka, 'everything about him is superb. He took South Korea to the semi-finals and also managed PSV and Real Madrid. You can't help but pick up confidence from a manager like that.

    'To have so much experience is important for us. Our squad is also better than it was four years ago, particularly as so many players have a lot of international experience. I'm optimistic.'

    In the short time he has been in charge Hiddink's very presence has undoubtedly added urgency and vigour to the squad. As well as tactical acumen.

    He is confident without underestimating the task in hand, describing the fifth-placed team in the South American group, who beat Argentina in the last round of games to secure the position, as a 'footballing powerhouse.' But he cautions against what to many is an admirable Australian trait.

    Though impressed with their skills, he suggests that Australians are 'sometimes over-excited and too committed. You have to think one or two steps ahead,' he says, 'and sometimes that is not easy for Australian players because they are so committed to go and take the challenge (that is there) at the moment.'

    A number of the current squad experienced the hostility of Uruguay last time round and should at least know what to expect. The squad as a whole has a more mature feel to it in terms of big match experience though injuries may mean a fresh-faced defence given the task of shackling Alvaro Recoba, Juventus's Marcelo Zalayeta and Richard Morales, who came on to such devastating effect in the corresponding fixture in 2001, scoring twice in the final 20 minutes.

    Even more worrying for Hiddink will be the fact that, going into such a potentially combustible match as this, a number of his top performers are one caution away from a suspension. Tim Cahill, Emerton, Lucas Neill, Vince Grella, John Aloisi and Marco Bresciano all must tread carefully in the Centenario Stadium on Saturday.

    Despite Hiddink's assertions as to the quality of the opposition, Australia should go into the contest knowing that it is a difficult tie that they are capable of winning. Midway through the expansive South American qualifying campaign Uruguay were in disarray. An embarrassing defeat to Venezuela saw the end of Juan Ramon Carrasco's bold if unsuccessful reign. Replacement Jorge Fossati initially fared little better.

    Only after a spirited tournament saw them finish third in the Copa America did Uruguay show anything like the pedigree their history alludes to. Unbeaten in the latter stages of qualifying, though with more draws than victories, it was an achievement just to make this play-off.

    A personality clash with Fossati means the inventive Javier Ernesto Chevanton, who scored 29 goals in all competitions for Monaco last season, will not be in the side and an injury picked up in Villarreal's Champions League victory over Benfica means Diego Forlan, European golden boot winner last term, will be absent from the first leg at least.

    The importance of gaining some sort of result in Montevideo is paramount when you consider that since 1998 Uruguay have recorded just three wins on the road in World Cup qualifiers out of a possible 27.

    This is the last chance Australia have to represent Oceania at a finals. Their understandable frustrations at having to play what amounts to two meaningful games every four years, thanks to FIFA's backtracking on a promise to give the region an automatic qualifying spot, has led to them leaving the much maligned confederation to compete in the future in Asia, where four automatic spots are up for grabs.

    A higher standard of competitive action should help develop the game, as should the newly formed national A-League. Though one observer expressed concerns for what they will leave behind, likening an Oceania confederation without Australia to the world's tallest dwarf competition.

    After nearly 30 years out of the game's spotlight, Australia can be forgiven pursuing a little self interest.

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