Sunday, December 18, 2005

Socceroos Undeterred by Samba Kings

Socceroos Undeterred by Samba Kings.
Optimism must be running at an all time high for Australian football and this from a nation hardly short on sporting self-belief, writes Marc Fox.

Not even being grouped alongside Brazil, Japan and Croatia for next year's World Cup finals dampened the spirits of a football community right now riding the crest of a wave. Having dispatched FIFA-ranked 18th-placed Uruguay over two intriguing ties last month, who are 15th-ranked Japan and lowly 20th-ranked Croatia to stand in the Socceroos' way?

"Japan and Croatia are not among the world's top 10 teams and if we play to our strengths then we have a good chance of going through to the knockout stages," goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer told Melbourne newspaper The Age.

Meanwhile captain Mark Viduka went one further by suggesting a result against five-times world champions Brazil might be within reach.

"We have got to give ourselves a chance," Viduka told the Sydney Morning Herald after the draw. "I think we are a team that's up for a challenge and obviously our aim is to get to the next round.

"They (Brazil) are all world-class players and they have got the history and pedigree behind them, so it's going to be a great challenge for us. But we have played them before in other tournaments and done well."

And who can blame them?

Like the extravagant Leipzig ceremony on December 9, Australia has a Dutch magician of its own. And with super-coach Guus Hiddink steering the ship any trick appears possible. The tactician who has guided successive nations to the semi-finals stage feels certain the Socceroos have the raw materials to be able surprise either or both of Japan or Croatia.

"They taught me in Australia 'no worries mate' and sometimes I think it's too relaxed, but this team does not have many worries," Hiddink said from Leipzig after watching the draw unfold alongside Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. "Brazil is a clear favourite, no doubt about it, and the other three are more or less equal and they will fight for the second position."

Avoiding an opening round clash with Brazil is a distinct advantage in the race of second. The Socceroos will face Japan first up in Kaiserslautern, a side Hiddink knows plenty about from his time in charge of South Korea. Home advantage in 2002 favoured the Japanese in proceeding from the group phase although they have undergone a period of change since under the tutelage of former Brazilian great Zico. Saying that, they lost just once in World Cup qualifying and have a number of players dotted around Europe.

The group-closing encounter with Croatia has thrown up a cauldron of stories regarding Australian-born defectors Joey Didulica, Ante Seric and Joe Simunic. The trio decided against representing Australia in favour of turning out for their motherland. Simunic, in particular, has proved a worthy acquisition and has already racked up 39 Croatian caps since his debut in 2001.

Out of the three group games, the deciding game with the Croats on June 22 will have the most spice. A win will not only erase the bitter memories of a 7-0 thumping in 1998 prior to Croatia finishing third at the France finals but surely guarantee progression to the knockout stage.

Just try finding any Australian football fan who believes that won't happen.

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