Australia’s coach Guus Hiddink was a relieved man at the press conference following today’s epic 2-2 draw, and he had every reason to be.

The fact is that Hiddink – praised throughout our campaign for his tactical genius, timely substitutions and brilliant strategy – was 11 minutes away from being the biggest goose in
Australian football.

His decision to replace regular goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer with Zeljko Kalac was almost the howler of the tournament. In the 39th minute, Kalac heart-stoppingly fumbled a routine corner then, 40 minutes later, completely stuffed up a long-range pass to allow Croatia’s second goal –- potentially the killer blow for Australia. He still found time to throw the ball straight back to a Croatia striker when Australia was desperately defending near the end.

At the press conference, nobody came right out and said that Hiddink must have been sweating on that choice of keeper but he more or less admitted it. The coach’s defence was that he hadn’t been happy with the form of either of Australia’s two keepers throughout this campaign and had particular concerns with some of Schwarzer’s work in the first two games. Hence he went with Kalac who let him down badly, although the coach would only admit was that there were a lot of errors in the match and that, yes, individuals made small mistakes that had major ramifications.

Asked if Kalac would be wearing the gloves against Italy on Tuesday, Hiddink diplomatically said: “That’s something we will think about in the next few hours.”

Other than that, everything was rosy. Hiddink’s mobile phone rang twice in 30 seconds and he explained it would be his mother, offering her congratulations, which got a laugh from the
international press. He spoke about how inspirational this Australian team is, with its never-say-die attitude, and laughed off suggestions that the team should be celebrating with the thousands of Australians who had reportedly taken to the streets back home. Hiddink said, straight-faced, that it would be better for his team to train tomorrow, rather than catch 24-hour flights.

The flamboyant Croatian coach, Zlatko Kranjcar, made a cameo appearance to complain that Harry Kewell’s decisive equaliser was off side but nobody paid much attention.

Of more interest was Kewell himself, who appeared at the press conference as man of the match. Harry said today’s game was one of the highlights of his career, right up there with Liverpool’s amazing comeback victory in last year’s Champions League.

Kewell even pointed out that while Liverpool had a great victory that day, his memories of it were less happy as he limped off the field after 20 minutes and was booed by Liverpool fans.
Kewell said matches like today allowed him to relive that memory, driving him to be there at the whistle and to celebrate hard with his teammates.

Peter Fray

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