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Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Advance Australia Fair

Derek Rae

Hello from one of the world's truly great cities.

I suppose I shouldn't really get on to the subject of jinxes. After all, many a reader of this column has bashed me before for being bad luck. Apparently if I predict good things for a particular team, it's all guaranteed to end in tears.

So I'll stop short of telling you Australia will prevail at Telstra Stadium in the decisive second leg of their World Cup play-off against Uruguay.

I will tell you one thing though, having viewed the Australian camp from close up in the past few days.

The confidence oozing from the Socceroos in the aftermath of Saturday's 1-0 defeat in Montevideo is considerably more than just an attempt to talk themselves into thinking they can get to Germany. The Aussies genuinely believe that they now hold most of the aces. I'm inclined to agree with them.

Much of the build-up to this fascinating tie has centred around kick-off times and travel plans, and by extension, jet lag. Both sides rushed to Montevideo airport after the first leg, arriving back here in Sydney at around the same time on Monday, but having experienced entirely different flight arrangements.

Whereas, Australia, through their sponsors Qantas, had use of what was akin to a spacious travelling hotel, replete with physiotherapy tables and humidifiers, the Uruguayans were stuck in economy class on a cramped regularly scheduled flight.

While Australia were able to recover properly from the stresses of the initial match, their opponents were left to get by in less than comfortable surroundings.

This, by the way, was of Uruguay's own making. Australia were originally due to be on that same LAN Chile flight, until the Uruguayans moved the kick-off time back to 9pm, making it impossible for the Socceroos to get to Santiago in time. Meanwhile the Uruguayans had a private plane at the ready. Advantage Uruguay or so they thought.

Having tried to upset Australia's plans, Uruguay ended up snookering themselves.

Wisely, the Australians went about securing their own charter. Then, just days before the first leg, the Uruguayans discovered that the flight they had envisaged for themselves wasn't feasible. They would have to fly with the public. But at 9pm, there was no way out of South America for a full twenty four hours.

Having tried to upset Australia's plans, Uruguay ended up snookering themselves. They were fortunate in the end that all sides, including FIFA, agreed upon a 6pm start at the Centenario Stadium, allowing Jorge Fossati's team to make the trip via Santiago and Auckland.

The Australians though, already more accustomed to the difficulties of long-haul flying through many different time zones, are entitled to feel that their happier Montevideo-Sydney experience, gives them a distinct edge.

Aside from that. 80,000 plus will be at Telstra Stadium to roar them on, and Mark Viduka told me straight after the match in Montevideo, he feels the Australian crowd can help the Socceroos, every bit as much as Uruguay's fans aided their team.

Still, for all that perceived travel advantages and a vocal crowd can be of benefit to the Australian cause, this still comes down to a football contest. Do Australia possess the qualities, both technical and tactical, to break down a Uruguay side with a reputation for being hard to beat?

For me, the answer to that question is an unequivocal 'yes.' The skill level in the Australian side is highly underrated. Mark Viduka wears the look of a highly polished international forward these days, and is revelling in the role of captain. Harry Kewell, for all his difficulties at Liverpool is a player of genuine talent. Lucas Neill for me, rarely gets the plaudits his defensive resilience merits. Mark Schwarzer showed on Saturday just what a fine goalkeeper he is.

Then, there are the unsung heroes: the likes of Vince Grella, such a canny holding player, Marko Bresciano, a positive presence with a fierce shot, and Scott Chipperfield, a former bus driver who doesn't know when to give up the ghost on the park.

Fine, some of you will say, but haven't these players been around for a while now and achieved little at international level? Of course, but we can't overlook the effect a top level manager can have in getting the best out of an already decent team.

It has been a pleasure to watch Guus Hiddink, a master of his craft, put the players through their paces this week and last. It has been equally heartening to see the Socceroos respond with nothing but enthusiasm to the ways of one of the world's leading football coaches.

Almost every Sydneysider I talk to here in the city, taxi drivers, shop assistants, has an opinion about Australia's chances. That's something new, in a country dominated by cricket, the two rugby codes and Aussie rules.

This could be a defining moment for the growth of the world's most popular sport in this proud sporting nation.

Thirty two years is far too long. It's about time we had Australia back with us, for the biggest sporting party on the planet.
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