October 2005


The miracles of Guus

By Simon Kuper
The miracles of Guus
Can a thoughtful Dutchman who is worshipped in Korea take the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup?

On his first day as coach of Australia’s soccer team Guus Hiddink is back home. The Australians are in a training camp at De Achterhoek, or the Back Corner, the eastern edge of Holland and the place where Hiddink grew up. The Back Corner is wooded, the emptiest bit of a crammed country, and when Hiddink is free he likes tootling down the back roads on his Harley Davidson Fatboy. “Pom-pom-pom-pom-pom-pom.” He likes puffing out his cheeks to imitate the sound of the motor.

On this mid-August morning he is supervising a bunch of big men flying into each other. It’s the start of a journey that is supposed to take the team a few miles across the border, from the Back Corner to Germany, for the 2006 World Cup. The only spectators are a few backpackers and a couple of Dutch journalists and after half an hour he stops the session. The cries of “Come on Emmo!”, “Hold the ball Johnno!”, “Let’s go!” and the streams of “Fucking” all cease. Hiddink asks the players to shout only when a team-mate is in trouble. That will improve everyone’s vision of play. The session resumes in near silence. “In Australian sports culture,” he explains afterwards, “which I admire very much, people always give 100% but unfortunately the tactical discipline sometimes gets forgotten. There is no balance between the effort and the cleverness of the play. I know it’s going to be a tough job but reaching the World Cup is possible.”

Articulate in Dutch, English and Spanish, Hiddink is a big, soothing presence. He was born in the Back Corner 58 years ago, one of six sons of a schoolteacher. Growing up among brothers prepared him for a life among sportsmen – “in such a big family I learned to share, listen and communicate” – and put him at ease around other men. He has a gift for the right matey gesture, grabbing you from behind by your shoulders by way of greeting, happy to talk but also to listen while others tell stories. He finds women more exotic; his co-habitation with his mistress while coach of South Korea proved too much for many Koreans.

He grew up milking cows, ploughing behind two horses and dreaming of becoming a farmer. But Dutch agriculture was dying so he became a soccer coach instead. By the age of 19 he had his certificates and accepted an assistant’s job at De Graafschap, the Back Corner’s semi-professional club, where his father had played before him. Only then did he make the rare career move from coach to player. The head coach, seeing that his young assistant could kick a ball, stuck him in the team. It was the start of a 16-year playing career. Hiddink was a handsome, round-faced, wavy-haired playmaker who could, he claims, “put the ball where I liked”. He could also be lazy. His massive legs were too slow to take him to the top. He was a failure in a brief spell with PSV Eindhoven, one of Holland’s biggest clubs. De Graafschap, anxious to bring him home, began a campaign among their fans called: “A tenner for Guus.” Supporters dropped ten guilders each into the milk pails at the ground’s entrance until De Graafschap had enough money to afford his transfer fee. Afterwards, whenever he played badly, the crowd would chant: “Tenner back!”

Hiddink earned extra income teaching PE to children with learning difficulties. He had spells in America, playing for the Washington Diplomats and the San Jose Earthquakes, where he roomed with George Best, the great alcoholic Northern Irishman. Hiddink’s job was to field phone calls from Best’s groupies. It wasn’t a great career but he was present at a golden age. In the 1970s the Dutch produced some of the best teams in the game’s history. Playing a new style known as “total football”, in which players kept swapping positions and thinking for themselves, Holland reached consecutive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. Dutch clubs won four European Cups. Off the pitch, the Dutch players of Hiddink’s generation would answer foreign journalists’ questions with sophisticated discourses in several languages. It remains the most glorious era of any small country in football history, and it’s the era that shaped Hiddink.

On the day he was announced as Frank Farina’s replacement, Hiddink described the idea of Australia qualifying for the 2006 World Cup as “a miracle”. Of course, he knows it wouldn’t be. Since then they have twice defeated the Solomon Islands. All they have to do now is beat the fifth-best team in South America – either Colombia, Uruguay or Chile at the time of writing – in a two-leg playoff in November. And that is perfectly doable. For Australia victory would guarantee the country’s second ever appearance in a World Cup and the first since 1974. For Hiddink it would satisfy his addiction – the same addiction that lured him to the coaching job in Korea five years ago – to World Cups. A World Cup, he says, is “the best against the best. You can work purposefully and at length with a group, preparing it for the climax. Then the moment comes, the tournament begins, now it has to happen – achieving under high tension. Team and staff become one. A tournament like that is an intensive life experience. It has an enormous impact on a country, although while you’re working you barely notice that. This is the ultimate for a coach. In me there is an irrepressible desire for a tournament like that.”

He realised early that in modern football, where millionaire players are global celebrities, a coach cannot be a sergeant-major. He needs the stars but he also needs to build a collective. Appointed coach of PSV Eindhoven in 1987, it didn’t matter that Hiddink had less status than some of his players for he was a clever man with, in his own words, “a small ego”. He sported a Groucho Marx moustache and would smoke cigarettes with his stars, swapping jokes and listening to their ideas.

His biggest star was a tiny Brazilian striker named Romario, who years later would be voted best player of the 1994 World Cup. The other PSV players were always grumbling that Romario – whose hobbies were philandering and sleeping – didn’t work enough for the collective. Eventually Romario asked Hiddink to let him face his detractors in a four-against-four game at training. “You can’t hide in four-against-four,” Hiddink chuckles over dinner on a snowy evening in Amsterdam. Romario stationed himself in defence and played a brilliant but bone-hard game. “He had thighs like that,” says Hiddink, gesturing with his hands. Romario’s quartet triumphed. The debate over his work-rate was closed.

Years later in Spain, when Hiddink was coach of Valencia and Romario was playing for Barcelona, Romario was getting ready to kick off a game in front of 100,000 spectators. Suddenly he signalled to the referee to wait a minute, jogged across to the Valencia bench and kissed his old boss on both cheeks. Remembering the moment, Hiddink mimes the kisses. Earlier this year, back once more as coach of PSV, Hiddink was trying to recruit a Brazilian player. He asked Romario to phone the guy. Romario did so at once. The player promptly rang Hiddink and told him, thrilled: “Romario called me!”

“The outside world often says you shouldn’t put difficult characters in your team because they make trouble. I think you need them,” Hiddink once proclaimed. “People like that are always looking for more. Instinctively they know what is needed. At the right moment they give that impulse to your team, helping it over a dead point. As a coach you can very easily create conflicts with those types to generate a certain alertness among the others.” Another of his former players, Wim Kieft, told the Dutch magazine Voetbal International: “In the sphere of tactics I don’t think he has the highest qualities, but in the psychological realm he is strong as iron. He gives his players trust and freedom, and a piece of responsibility.”

It was at Valencia that Hiddink learned an important lesson when his assistant told him to ignore the circus surrounding soccer: death threats, newspaper gossip, whisperings about what the club’s vice-president supposedly said to the best player’s mistress. “Mister, let it go,” urged the assistant. “Limit yourself to football.” He has done so ever since.

In 1995 he became manager of Holland, which offered another lesson in group dynamics, even for an advanced student. The black players complained that Hiddink only conferred with the white players. Then at the 1996 European Championships a photographer snapped the Dutch team at lunch: all the black players were at one table, all the whites at the others. One black player, Edgar Davids, told a TV crew that Hiddink should “take his head out of other players’ asses”. Davids was sent home. The talented Dutch side got knocked out early. And Hiddink learnt that a coach must be aware of every detail of team life. The black players had complained that the team cook never made Dutch-Caribbean dishes. After 1996, the cook did.

In the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup, Hiddink named Johan Neeskens, Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman as his assistants – three of the greatest players in Dutch history, and all ambitious as coaches. Few others would have taken such a risk but Hiddink dares to delegate. He also dared to recall Davids, saying: “As a coach you should never be super-stubborn.” Once the tournament started Davids excelled in a wonderful Dutch team. The players got on so well that Hiddink had to generate conflict, on one occasion knocking the baseball cap off the head of a player who had worn it to lunch. Holland reached the semi-finals, where they matched Brazil for 120 minutes before losing in a penalty shootout. At the end of the game, one of the best ever, Dutch and Brazilian players hugged in mutual admiration.

Hiddink had barely a week off before beginning work at Real Madrid. Six months later he was sacked, just before two o’clock one morning, despite having offered a regular spot to the club president’s not very gifted son. Getting sacked happens frequently to Real Madrid managers and Hiddink, with his small ego, didn’t worry too much. In any case, by this time he was admitting to waning ambition. Never a workaholic, he had proved himself already. He had seen it all. And he had fallen in love with golf. He mused about opening a soccer clinic for kids. Football was becoming a hobby.

Coaching abroad has freed Hiddink from the national superiority complex that prevails in Dutch football: the belief that the Dutch way, “total football”, is the only way. In Holland football is a thinking man’s game. When the Dutch talk about it the concepts to which they always return are techniek and tactiek. Passie – or passion – is a quality they associate with unsophisticated footballers from other countries. Hiddink has discovered it is actually pretty important.

He took a break and in 2001 popped up as manager of South Korea, who were due to co-host the 2002 World Cup with Japan. They had played in several previous World Cups but never won a match. Hiddink’s main task, as ever, was psychological. In Korean football the older the player, the higher his status. A 31-year-old who had been an international for years was so respected he could afford to coast. At meal-times the oldest players would take their table first, and the youngest last. And whereas Dutch players talked too much, Koreans were practically mute. “Slavishness is a big word,” Hiddink told me at the time, “but they do have something like: if the commander says it, we’ll follow it blindly. They are used to thinking, ‘I’m a soldier, I’ll do what’s asked of me.’ And you have to go a step further if you want to make a team really mature. Because when I’m sitting on the touchline my power is limited to a couple of substitutions and doing something at half-time. And that’s it. So you need people who can and will take the team in their hands.”

Hiddink wanted autonomous, thinking, Dutch-type players: a centre-half who sees when he should push into midfield; a striker who knows to drop back a few yards. “Commitment is not their problem,” he added. “Almost too much. But if you have too high commitment, you often lose the strategic overview. Tactically they need to learn enormously.” These are words he now echoes as coach of Australia.

He began by kicking out a couple of older players. He named a young man captain. He asked his players to make their own on-field decisions. Then, shortly before the tournament, he brought back the jilted older players who were by now pretty motivated. Playing with a fervour rarely seen in football, the Koreans knocked out Italy, Spain and Portugal to reach the World Cup semi-final. They were helped by several dubious refereeing decisions, prompting suggestions that perhaps a Korean chaebol had leant on people high up in football. Kim Dae-jung, the president of South Korea, cried.

By the end of the World Cup it was hard to think of a football coach anywhere with Hiddink’s stature. Korea had craved global recognition and he had achieved it. Posters of Hiddink went up all round the country. Cities planned statues in his honour. He became the first foreigner ever to be granted honorary Korean citizenship. A caricature of his face appeared on stamps. People suggested he should run for president. His autobiography appeared in a Korean print run of half a million – despite having to compete with an estimated 16 Hiddink biographies. Meanwhile in the Back Corner, Korean tour buses made pilgrimages to the Hiddink ancestral home. One day the man himself dropped by to visit his octogenarian parents.

“Well, it wasn’t bad,” his father admitted. “Coffee?”

Since the Australians already have passie, Hiddink is teaching them techniek and tactiek – to think like Dutchmen. He noticed that at the Confederations Cup in June, where they lost all three games, the four Australian defenders would often stay back to mark a single forward. That left them short elsewhere on the pitch. Not even a semi-professional Dutch team would be so naive. So Hiddink started to mess with the team’s hierarchy, presumably to energise his players, just as he did in Korea. In a squad game during those mid-August training sessions in the Back Corner he omitted two veterans, Josip Skoko and Lucas Neill, from the first team.

Some more quintessentially Hiddinkian touches were in evidence during last month’s 7–0 and 2–1 victories over the Solomons. First he made Mark Viduka captain. “It’s a great big surprise to me,” said Viduka, a difficult man who does not always appear to try his utmost. Yet this was a classic Hiddink strategy: co-opt potential problem people by giving them responsibility. He overturned the rest of the leadership group too. He omitted the established Marco Bresciano in favour of the lesser-known Jason Culina. He made a point of announcing that only Viduka was certain of playing in the opening match. When nobody is sure of their place, everybody is awake – and under Hiddink, everybody means everybody. He insisted that his entire squad travel all day to get to the meaningless second game in hot Honiara. This meant several well-paid players had to delay returning to their European clubs by three days so that they could instead sit on a bench in the tropics. Hiddink, unlike his predecessor Farina, now has the status to make these sorts of demands.

The team’s formation has also changed. Australia fielded only three defenders against the Solomons instead of the usual four, putting the extra man in midfield. This too is evocative of Dutch football: don’t keep players hanging around the back when you can send any surplus manpower into midfield to create a majority there. That way Australia has the capacity to defend in the other team’s half and to hurry their opponents as soon as they get the ball. Hiddink has introduced a ten-second rule, giving his players at least ten seconds to keep the ball and at most ten seconds to win it back. This means all 11 players must both attack and defend. No one gets to put hands on hips. “The attackers have to defend and the defence has to make a good contribution to the build-up of the game,” says Hiddink. “So it’s more total [football].”

Hiddink’s Australians of 2005 look a better team than his Koreans of 2001. Most of the Australians have carved out successful European careers. Viduka and Harry Kewell have savoured periods of stardom in England. It is no accident that of the many approaches Hiddink received to take a country to the next World Cup, he chose Australia, while continuing part-time to run PSV. His new country’s only previous World Cup appearance was in Germany in 1974, the same year the champion Holland side of Hiddink’s generation made the final. Helped by the withdrawal of several Arab countries, Australia qualified as Asia’s sole representative. The Socceroos were part-timers back then. Some had to give up their day jobs to compete. They lost twice and drew once. But as Matthew Hall writes in The Away Game: “Their thongs, super-tight Aussie Rules-style shorts and marsupial mascots endeared them to the German public.” It was not until 1997 that the team was publicly honoured back home.

The story of soccer over the past decade is the story of best practice spreading from western Europe to the rest of the world. World Cups and European championships used to be dominated by Brazil and the founding nations of the European Union: Italy, Germany, France, Holland. These countries played disciplined, intelligent, collectivist football. Countries outside western Europe or on its fringes – such as Portugal, Greece and England – did not. Then the fringe countries began hiring coaches from the heart of Europe. Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede who had worked for many years in Italy, became England manager. These countries were educated in what might be called “the EU style” of football. It worked. Greece defeated Portugal in last year’s European Championship final. In 2002 Turkey and Korea reached the World Cup semi-finals, and the US the quarters. It turns out that with a half-decent team, a first-rate coach and time to prepare, you can go far.

At times during the history of Australian soccer the game’s authorities have been reduced to filming their own matches and offering the tapes to TV channels for free. Australia play fewer significant matches than any other serious national team in the world. They have to qualify for World Cups from the Oceania zone, which for the most part entails hammering small Pacific islands; in 2001 they beat Tonga 22–0, then two days later crushed American Samoa either 31–0 or 32–0, the scorekeeper having lost count. Then, at the final qualifying hurdle, they traditionally lose to a mediocre Latin American team because Australia’s two big games against the Latin Americans are the only big games they play in four years.

And yet with Australia’s national cricket team ageing and fading, there has perhaps never been a better time for soccer to make its mark. More children play soccer than the three oval-ball codes combined. The A-League, a national professional competition, kicked off in August. On its first weekend more than 25,000 spectators watched Sydney draw 1–1 with Melbourne. An Australian presence at the World Cup, the biggest media event on the planet in 2006, might make all the difference. Which is why they hired Guus Hiddink.

Success in Australia would help soccer complete its conquest of the world. Already it is pre-eminent in Europe, Africa and Latin America. It is invading China, Japan and the US. The game seems to possess a quality that enables it, once seen, to eventually conquer every known society. Roger Hutchinson, writing in the British football magazine Perfect Pitch, recounted soccer’s arrival in 1889 on the Hebridean island of South Uist. For centuries the islanders had played games like shinty, a version of hockey. But when a 21-year-old English schoolteacher named Frederick Rea landed on the island carrying a leather ball, they decided to switch. Within two decades shinty had died out on South Uist. As Hutchinson writes: “One thousand four hundred years of deeply ingrained sporting tradition was wiped like chalk from the face of the island … supplanted, like a thousand of its distant relatives from Buenos Aires to Smolensk, by a game almost as young and innocent as Frederick Rea himself.”

British colonialists such as Rea began the game’s voyage of conquest. Now, in the second age of globalisation, cable-TV is completing it. The last holdouts – the Americans, the Chinese, women – are being won over. Today it is possible to watch almost any sport on TV. And given that choice, most people in the world choose soccer, basketball or golf. Other sports are being eaten. Those that suffer most are the ones not instantly intelligible on TV (such as rugby or cricket), the ones that take too long (cricket or baseball) and the ones whose practitioners are ugly (sumo, shotput and, arguably, rugby). If Hiddink does his usual job, the man who currently walks Sydney’s streets almost unrecognised could end up making quite an impression on Australia.

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