The day I met Guus Hiddink

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I had waited for this day with nervous doubt.  I was no stranger to disappointment.  I’d watched failed campaign after failed campaign.  Today was going to be either an adrenalin-filled high or gut-wrenching low, the latter an all too familiar sensation.  Of course, I am referring to Australia’s bid to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup to be held in Germany. 

The morning had come, my plan was to don the green and gold as soon as I awoke to get into the spirit nice and early but having to wait 12 hours until kick-off made this task quite a challenge.  My Dad, who I had been going to see Socceroos’ matches with since he first took me in 1987, had taken the day off work as I did; this was a special day on the football calendar. 

We decided that we were going to go to the hotel where the Socceroos’ had been reportedly staying, the Parkroyal in Parramatta.  The trip in the car was a to-and-fro of possible match scenarios and predictions that may occur.  My Dad was as confident as ever, he had been battle-hardened and had no doubt that the boys would do it, especially with Johnny Warren watching with a guiding-hand from above. 

I was less confident of a convincing win but still hopeful that we’d get through; I felt it was one thing missing in my life, the life of a football fan.  Uruguay’s attacking-midfield maestro, Alvaro Recoba, had come out and said qualification was their “divine right” which had me somewhat quietly confident as arrogance usually gets you nowhere. 

When we arrived at the hotel I was absolutely dumbfounded, where were all the fans?  I was expecting hundreds of people loitering around the entrance and lobby, photographers and media crews on location, fans trying to get autographs and give well-wishes to their European-based superstars, nothing.  It was business as usual.  Maybe I had built it up to be something it wasn’t, or maybe it was a sign of where the game stood in the sporting spectrum. 

We went and had some breakfast at the buffet; there were lots of business-types, who were obviously attending a conference at the hotel, hoeing down on bacon and eggs and sausages.  From memory, they were accountants, which probably explained their disinterest and nerdish blindness to what was happening around them that day. 

As we went back downstairs clad in our best Socceroo gear, I saw some of the players casually walking through the lobby.  The concierge had told us quite sternly that there was to be no photos taken, so we agreed to ensure we didn’t get kicked-out. 

The players had come from their morning breakfast session and in small groups were making their way back to their rooms.  Brett Emerton, Luke Wilkshire and Harry Kewell strolled past and I went right up to Kewell with an outstretched hand and said: “Good luck tonight, Harry!”  He replied, “Thanks mate” as I noticed his sick tattoo he had on his hand

In the meantime my Dad had asked the concierge, who had a pompous accent and arrogant demeanour, whether there were any rooms left for the night, he quickly replied that there weren’t and that they’d been booked-out ages ago.  This would not be the end of it though. 

Then, big Mark Viduka came walking out by himself; my Dad went up to him and said: “Dukes, can I shake your hand mate?”  With a huge smile the V-bomber said, “Of course you can buddy!”  They proceeded to chat for a good few minutes, I was listening and thinking for some reason that Viduka would have an average game, and he did.  Nice guy though. 

One of the conference rooms was open and it must have been filled with hundreds of Socceroos’ shirts to be individually autographed by the squad.  As I was checking it out, Tim Cahill pops-out with a marker in his hand and a preoccupied expression.  I said hello and shook the two or three fingers he reluctantly extended to me, he didn’t seem too interested in greeting a random fan; I guess he had plenty on his mind. 

A few fans had arrived outside and I caught a glimpse of some photographers as well, their attempts to come into the hotel were foiled by the cranky but consistent concierge.  We considered ourselves lucky; my Dad has a way of getting what he wants, always. 

The coaching staff walked over to the bar and sat on the lounge to have a private chat; assistant Graham Arnold engaged us in some friendly conversation and thanked us for our support.  He also allowed me to take a photo with him.  He started his football journey at the grassroots with my local Club, Gwawley Bay FC in Sylvania, so we had something in common. 

Some more of the squad was passing us by and giving us a nod, wave or smile, probably surprised there weren’t more fans there to greet them.  The guys outside were screaming out to them, their muffled voices buffered by the glass made me laugh. 

Last to come out was the man I had been waiting for, the man Football Federation Australia Chairman, Frank Lowy, had delivered to the nation to get us into the World Cup, our saviour: Guus Hiddink.  The Dutchman was a towering-figure; actually he was huge, in size and in mystic-aura.  I said hello looking up at him, I’m not short at 181cm but he seemed like a giant.  I shook his hand and my Dad proceeded to talk to him about a place he had visited in the Netherlands called Oss. 

Hiddink stood with his hand under his chin and thumb and index finger around his mouth with lips pursed, listening attentively to the irrelevant chat my Dad had to offer but had the poise to give him the time of day.  What a class act.  I could only stare at the man who appeared larger than life.  After a few minutes he moved-on and from that chance-encounter, I began to believe. 

We made our way to Homebush in an attempt to have lunch, a few drinks and mingle with the Green & Gold Army at the brewery.  The atmosphere was amazing; this was no ordinary match.  The grey sky didn’t help my anxious mood but the fans soon eased my fears. 

The historic events, which took place on that fateful day and night, will always live long in my memory; watching Hiddink work his coaching magic from the sideline was truly inspirational.  He was calm, yet firm, confident, and yet slightly vulnerable, but never in doubt.  Pundits from the other football codes still to this day don’t know what was so special about him and what he did, but I guess that’s the difference between arse and class. 

I honestly believe that Telstra Stadium moved that night, with one penalty-kick deciding our destiny.  The tears, happiness and planning all started to sink-in.  My mind was racing, excited by the fact that we, Australia, would now be given the opportunity to showcase our football and grow on the world stage. 

On our way out of the stadium amongst a frenzied environment of hysteria and wild celebrations, we decided to make our way back to the hotel.  The concierge had miraculously changed his tune and after my Dad talked him around, we had a room booked for the night and an invite to join the party of all Socceroos’ parties. 

This time I could take as many photos as I liked and did with all the stars, you name them.  There were people everywhere in the lobby and bar.  Current Channel 9 presenter, Mark Ferguson, was at the bar with his young son and said to me that the spectacle he had just witnessed was the greatest sporting event he’d ever seen. 

Australian-based Socceroos striker, Archie Thompson, was the life of the party; he was going to the World Cup.  I saw him down two bottles of champagne from the bottle, and why not?  It was a who’s who of football personalities, current and ex-players, administrators and politicians, as well as a few random celebrities who love the world game. 

FFA Chief Executive Officer, John O’Neill, embraced us and said quite sincerely, “Thanks for sticking with the game!”  The bandwagon was now being prepared and ready for an unprecedented surge in support, peaking of course in June of 2006.  Again, the difference between those feelings of jubilation and yet another failure was one penalty-kick, incredible. 

I spotted Hiddink late in the evening, he had showered and prepared to join the party briefly; with his melanin-replete lady holding his hand, it was time for the master-tactician to relax and enjoy the moment.  What he did for Australian-football in one night changed the game in this country forever.  For that we owe him our respect and gratitude.  He’ll always be our Aussie Guus! 

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