Australia embarks on grand adventure

In Germany, Australia will rely on its celebrated virtues (toughness, disciplined desire, teamwork), combine it with Hiddink's tactical savvy, add a flavour of pride, and hope to march on, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Watching Australia ready itself for the World Cup is, well, actually, rather an endearing sight (endearing not quite being a word usually associated with the combative, machismo, eat-pie-with-opponents-blood-as-sauce universe of Australian sport). It is like an uncertain teenager before a first date. Do I look my best? Will I be out of place? Will we win a match? This is an anxious nation on an adventure.

Maybe it's something in the beer, but cut an Australian and usually he bleeds confidence. No team, no contest, no moment appears to rattle them, as if part of their baby diet is chewing on challenges. But this is different. Football they are tentative about, to the point where they call it soccer, much to the chagrin of the nation's immigrants, the keepers of this particular sporting flame. When flares go off in soccer grounds, Australians still blink uncertainly at the foreignness of it all; when club football occasionally resulted in riots, they were horrified. Football to Australians is footy, or rugby, and they are assured and adept at kicking balls that are not spherical. With soccer, they become a different beast, somewhat hesitant and humble, stripped of machismo, because they have not mastered it. Endearing, remember.

In every sport their pursuit is only of ultimate victory, here qualifying for the second phase of the World Cup will be considered a triumph. In other sports, their confidence is never couched, here they feel compelled to say things like "playing Brazil does not intimidate us, it excites us". The irony might have escaped them, for it is what people say about them in most sports.

In other sports, they will be quick to tease, conducting ruthless mental examinations of an opponent, here the sledging has been aimed at them. Ronaldo recently concluded that he had never heard of a single Australian football player. Except for "the one from Osasuna", this being John Aloisi, who scored the penalty in the shootout against Uruguay last year to qualify Australia for the World Cup.

Aloisi responded with a characteristic "Ronaldo who?" and you sense the buck-toothed Brazilian had erred. The Australians did not need further cause to chase an upset and now they have found it.

Of course, the Australians have visited a World Cup before, in 1974, but an ipod generation holds no memory of it, and in the constantly churning universe of sport it qualifies as remote history. For all their relative disdain of football, it would have irked Australians that a nation uniquely defined by its physical arts was invisible and unmentioned at the world's most celebrated sporting party. Qualification for the World Cup, after several heartbreaks which only amplifies the pleasure, has energised the nation. Newspapers which once leaned towards the patronising when it came to football, now allow it onto front pages. About 95,000 turned out at the MCG on Thursday to farewell the Socceroos, who left for Europe after a 1-0 win over European champions Greece. No football revolution is under way in Australia, but an interest has been sparked and an affection, at least during the World Cup, in place.

The match was a "friendly", a tune-up, still the win was commendable, and instantly elevated Guus Hiddink from "master coach" to "genius". In South Korea, Hiddink was offered citizenship after taking them to the 2002 semifinals. This year, should he somehow squeeze Australia into the Cup's second round, statute makers in Victoria will commence their chipping. This fellow could teach Dale Carnegie a thing or two about winning friends and influencing people.

The globe is speckled with Australian coaches spouting wisdom about swimming and cricket and hockey and rugby, but here an entire nation sagely nods along to everything a portly Dutchman says. If he says Harry Kewell stays on the bench, no one squeaks.

Hell, he brought Australia to the promised land, if he wanted the prime ministership they'd petition John Howard to stand down.

Some men are so finely versed in the language of football that they can decode it to anyone, a bit like silver-tongued travelling salesmen selling wonderful tactical ideas. Bora Milutinovioc managed Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990), the United States (1994) and Nigeria (1998) in World Cups and took each one to the second round.

Hiddink is a slightly higher form of genius, having coached his native Holland to the World Cup semis one year, then South Korea, has now qualified Australia, and then is off to Russia. Australia resembles South Korea in the sense its gifts lie not in individual players but in its cohesion as a team. Kewell, probably their most finely talented player, is in a Rooneyesque situation wherein news of his injured body part arrives daily with the sun. With the Englishman it is a metatarsal, with the Australian the groin. Neither promises to play a major role.

Young countries lack the technical gifts and sophistication of Brazil and Italy, so Australia will have to run hard, keep possession, use it wisely, harry opponents. It will rely on its celebrated virtues (toughness, disciplined desire, teamwork), combine it with Hiddink's tactical savvy, add a flavour of pride, and hope to march on.

Australia, grouped with Japan, Brazil and Croatia, is not without opportunity, and Hiddink has smartly kept expectations pared down. Still, already with his team, you can feel a subtle change, not suddenly endowed with some supernatural power, or infected by some creative Ronaldinho gene, but just a little smoother, a few grams more confident.

All that tension of the qualifiers that gnaws at the joints and clogs the arteries and interrupts the workings of the brain has dissipated. Of course, the World Cup brings its own anxiety, but Australia is beginning to play with the freedom of an unshackled nation which knows it belongs.