Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Under an Uzbeki sky
The ancient and mysterious nation of Uzbekistan holds the key to Pim Verbeek's dreams of steering the Socceroos to their second consecutive World Cup finals' appearance.
Verbeek calls the shots at Socceroos training (GettyImages)
The former Soviet republic was drawn alongside Australia - plus Japan, Bahrain and Qatar - in group A for the fourth and final leg of Asian qualification for South Africa 2010.
And while the other three teams in the group, especially the Japanese and Qataris, are familiar to Harry Kewell and co, the Aussies have never previously opposed the Uzbeks in a senior international.
But now September 10th in Tashkent, and April Fool's Day 2009 at an as yet unnamed Australian city, are looming as pivotal qualifying dates.
And the tactics and preparation from Verbeek, who faced the Uzbeks during his time in the Korean coaching staff, will be critical.
'I've been to Tashkent with South Korea and it's tough,' Verbeek said. 'They're not an easy team but there are no easy teams in this group.'
As an assistant to Dick Advocaat in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Verbeek travelled to Tashkent in June 2005 as the Koreans faced Uzbekistan in the fourth match of their campaign.
Two months earlier, South Korea secured a 2-1 home victory in Seoul but found themselves trailing at Tashkent's Pakhtakor Stadium after a 62nd minute goal from tall Dynamo Kyiv striker, Maksim Shatskikh. It wasn't until FC Seoul winger Park Chu-Young produced an injury-time equaliser to salvage a 1-1 result and a crucial point for the visitors.
Five days later, the Koreans thumped Kuwait 4-0 away - on the same day that Uzbekistan lost 3-0 in Saudi Arabia - to all but secure their ticket to Germany 2006.
Now the second Wednesday in September will be another test of planning, structure and bravado for the affable Dutchman.
First problem: how to easily get Australia's Europe-based stars to a midweek game in a country well off the tourist track. Others members of the squad will travel from Australia with the A-League into the early stages of its fourth season.
'I have to find how we can fly to Tashkent the best way and the best route,' Verbeek said. 'Hopefully we can find a friendly match before that game.'
The uncertainties of Uzbekistan aside, Verbeek would feel reasonably happy with the results of the draw at AFC House in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur on June 27th.
The Socceroos will play three of their last four games at home including the finale against fellow group heavyweights Japan on June 17th.
They will again have to travel to the Middle East summer to face Qatar on June 6th but will have the confidence of their recent 3-1 away victory against the same opponents in the third round of qualification.
The Qataris were surprise qualifiers ahead of Asian champions Iraq, who've beaten the Socceroos twice in the last 12 months.
Australia will also feel relieved at avoiding both Iran - their nemesis from the 1998 campaign - and Saudi Arabia, who've appeared in the last four World Cups.
Instead of drawing the Saudis from pot-3, they picked out the less accomplished Bahrain, whom the Socceroos beat home and away in the lead-up to the 2007 Asian Cup.
Even so, it could be a nerve-jangling ride for the next nine months alongside a couple of teams with unfinished business against the Aussies. Japan are still stung by their 3-1 defeat in the 2006 World Cup and Qatar coach Jorge Fossati will never forget the feeling of disappointment at Sydney's Olympic stadium after losing a November 2005 playoff when he was in charge of his native Uruguay.
Unlike the third round, there will almost certainly be no luxury of an early qualification by securing a position in the top two teams from the group. That may mean a must-win game against the Japanese to end their campaign.
Already, more than one superstitious Aussie fan has predicted a November 2009 play-off with New Zealand for the final spot for the World Cup finals.
That would happen if the Socceroos finished third in group A, defeated the team in the same position from Asian Group group-B and if the All Whites advanced after their Oceania campaign.
Pim Verbeek won't want to even contemplate such a scenario. With a two month break until the Socceroos' trip to Tashkent, the 52-year-old can take a short summer's holiday in the Netherlands and share his reflection on his first six months in the job with ESPNsoccernet.
Q: Pim, a word on Australia's first match in the final round of World Cup qualifying. What are the qualities of the Uzbekistan side?
A: They're a Russian-orientated team. A lot of their players play in the Russian league and as we saw in Euro 2008, that's a very strong league. They're physically strong and skilful players. They did very well in the Asian Cup and in World Cup qualifying so far. They're not an easy team but there are no easy teams in this group.
Q: After seeing the last qualifying performance against China, what have you learned about the pool of players that you're confident of throwing into the must-win World Cup qualifiers ahead?
A: In the China game, we purposely rested some senior players who had not had a holiday for three years or more. I had made this clear from the beginning of the period that if we were through this would happen. I thought the younger players were overtaken by the occasion but this is good for them to learn from this, especially ahead of the Olympic Games where many of them will now play. Obviously, we needed stronger performances across the park.
Q: In your view, how have the Socceroos developed and progressed since last year's Asian Cup?
A: That is hard for me to say. But I am pleased with how well they respond in training, how respectful they are of the conditions and their opponents, and how much they want to play for their country. These are all very good.
Q: What do you see as the main areas that your squad needs to improve ahead of the final phase of qualifying?
A: Always, it would be good to have more time together! But this is not possible so we work around it as best as we can. They are a good squad who enjoy playing with each other, with most of them playing good football every week. I think it will be good to get all of them together again. In Super June, we were not able to put our best team on the park at any time because of injuries or family commitments.
Q: Harry Kewell has been an inspirational figure for the Socceroos in recent matches. In your view, where is he in his football development and what will he offer to his next club?
A: Yes, Harry is a special player. He is fantastic to have in the squad. He is almost 30 now so he is also experienced and mature and this is reflected in the way he plays his football. He offers any club enormous skills, great attitude, hard work and big heart.
Q: Finally, how have you enjoyed the coaching role and how is it different to what you expected?
A: I have been coaching a long time. Almost my entire working life. So I know what to expect. But if you mean do I like coaching Australia - of course. The players are very committed to the cause of qualifying for the World Cup, there are many passionate people in the game - in FFA, in the team, and the fans - and it is one of the easiest countries in the world to live in.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.