Socceroos captain Lucas Neill has drawn upon the image he’d stored in his memory of former national coach Guus Hiddink during Australia’s historic 2005 victory over Uruguay to ensure Australia enter Tuesday night’s must-win match against Iraq cool, calm and collected.
Neill, who hopes Australia will secure automatic qualification to a fourth World Cup, said the sight of Hiddink leaning casually against the team’s substitute bench despite the nervous energy that engulfed the Sydney Olympic Park stadium that November night set the tone for how he handled pressure situations.
“It was surreal,” said Neill. “The place was electric and after 25 minutes I looked over and Guus had his arms folded and he was leaning with his right shoulder against the bench as if he was waiting for a bus. He was stone-faced and ice veins.
“So, here I am out on the pitch and 80,000 people going crazy. Everyone is tense and nervous and I’m very composed and calm because I look over and see my manager is leaning up against the sub’s bench like the coolest man in the world despite overseeing the most important game in Australia’s history.”
Neill said that image also reinforced his belief that Tuesday night’s match against Iraq – which is expected to be played in front of a full house at ANZ Stadium – needed to be treated as nothing more than a game. “My message to the fans is to express your passion and express your emotions, but to my players it is to play the game and not the occasion,” he said.
“We just need to remember no game is an easy game. We have to keep our feet on the ground and remain relaxed and do the things we’ve done the last two weeks, the things that put us into this position.
“We have to keep things as calm and composed and, then, let’s hope we have a rich, strong, positive start like we’ve had the intention of doing in the last two games [against Japan and Jordan].” While the Socceroos received overwhelming public support at appearances throughout Sydney in the build-up to the match Neill said the “quiet and calm” of the squad pleased him.
“No-one is talking about Brazil, no-one is talking about winning, everybody is just talking about preparing and getting that feeling in training that we’re 100 per cent prepared and ready and going into the game,” he said.
“There’s a good feeling in Sydney – and Australia – but it’s more important the senior players and myself as captain to ensure no-one gets caught up in that wave of excitement. It does go in peaks and troughs. This is coming towards our peak. We just have to concentrate on one win, one game and we’ll ride the crest of a wave for another year, maybe two, because of the Asian Cup. We’re in the moment but we have to make sure we maximise the moment.”
Neill was adamant that despite their having no chance of qualifying for the World Cup, Iraq possessed a brand of pride and passion that commanded respect.
“Iraq is a very passionate nationality and they have experienced very adverse moments in their lives and they always seem to be playing for, I don’t know if you say a better life or a better experience in life,” he said. “Their players are very loyal, very passionate. We know whoever travels and plays for Iraq will be very committed to their team, their flag and trying to win the game.
“And Iraq is a bit of a bogey team for Australia, we have to be very careful. It’s not an easy game.
”They have the mentality that they won’t lie down easily, they won’t be intimidated easily because they’ve had different upbringings and they’re fighters.
“We always respect our opposition but we should respect them more so. I think some of these guys will see a big crowd and see a big opportunity to perform and showcase themselves and we have to counter that.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.