Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remembering Unthanked Socceroo heroes

November 15, 2005.

Six years ago Australian football changed forever. It was on that night that Guus Hiddink's Socceroos upset Uruguay to claim their first World Cup berth since 1974.

The team featured the best collection of footballing talent Australia had produced to that point, led by Mark Viduka and the genius Dutchman who inspired almost single-handedly an antipodean worship of the principles of Total Football. Many still speak in hushed tones of Hiddink's regard for Australia and his "constant contact" with the Socceroos he befriended during their star-cross'd '06 campaign.

SBS commentator Craig Foster tweeted about the that incredible evening yesterday, reminding us that the national anthem was booed, of Mark Bresciano's levelling goal, how much we feared Alvaro Recoba and finally, Mark Schwarzer's saves and John Aloisi's incredible penalty. It ranks as one of my top three sporting memories of all time - I can remember the friends I watched it with, how many beers I drank and ever half-cut scream of delight at Schwarzer's heroics.

 That wonderful night - friends and I ran down the main street of our town in our underwear, so happy were we - was one of the highest points in Australian football, rivalled by the 1997 Confederations Cup and matches against Japan, Brazil, Croatia and Italy at the 2006 Big Dance.
Though that evening at the Sydney Olympic Stadium was wonderful, the administration that went into November 15, 2005 was perhaps more surprising that a Socceroo upset victory. For so long split by infighting, the FFA had reached a turning point in the years prior. If Cahill, Kewell, Viduka and Moore was our "Golden Generation", then Australian football's dream management team backed that talent.

They may even rival Aloisi and Schwarzer as the real heroes of that night.

Chairman Frank Lowy and CEO John O'Neill were installed in the years before and it was Lowy's hefty billfold that funded the temporary acquisition of Hiddink, who was then managing PSV Eindhoven. Though he brought a World Cup to Australian Rugby Union, O'Neill has never administrated more masterfully than over that World Cup campaign. As any business entity goes, let alone the a race-torn and struggling sports administration, it worked superbly: Lowy provided the gift of vision, O'Neill got things done. This all allowed Hiddink to do what he was paid for: get the most out of his men.

After Lowy and O'Neill took office, they began by disbanding the ailing, nationalistic NSL and replaced it with the A-League. A complete re-boot was needed and the domestic game - while hardly thriving - is in much calmer (and less violent, except when Kevin Muscat and John Kosmina are involved) waters than ever before. The model ascended to such prominence in the next two years that the National Basketball League has recently followed suit in attempting to re-brand.

The pair also spearheaded Australia's move into the Asian Football Confederation. This was aimed at giving Australian domestic competition the chance to thrive in a stronger, more well-funded sphere of influence. Qualification wouldn't ride on a head-to-head versus New Zealand and then playing the fifth-placed Asian or South American team. As in business and politics, Australia now looks towards their nearest - rather than most phenotypically similar - relations.

This move brought about Adelaide FC's march to the 2008 Asian Champions' League final and empowered several fringe Socceroos to move to Qatar, China, Japan or South Korea for better remuneration than the nascent A-League could afford. Qualification for the World Cup is desirable; actually having a strong football fraternity is actually more crucial.

While we remember that wonderful night, it's also time to pay tribute to the visionaries behind it. If Hiddink is thought alongside Rale Rasic as as Australia's greatest coach, then O'Neill and Lowy deserve to be thought of with similar fondness.

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