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Grooming the Socceroos to become the boys for Brazil

Holger Osieck has heard the critics but Rio is in his sights.

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Entering the press conference room, Holger Osieck greets the waiting pack with an ironic reference to the many cameras thrust in his face. ''Strange there are so many.'' The extra attention, the Socceroos coach well knows, is an indication of the intense scrutiny he has faced since the Oman debacle.

Later, privately, Osieck speaks frankly but with good humour about the now crushing weight of expectation he and his team encounter entering a three-game ordeal - starting with Tuesday night's game in Japan. Osieck's determined facade is softened by a warmth that does not always come through the lens. But, as the German coach is well aware, charm and tact are no longer elements by which he will be judged. Only the scoreboard will speak for him.

So did the criticism of his selection and tactics after the calamitous 2-2 draw with Oman in March sting?

''I can assure you it didn't affect me because after a game, everybody knows better,'' Osieck says. ''Nobody knows what we've worked on and the game plan and the strategy. They can only judge what they see on the pitch, and it was not what I expected myself. But people come out of the bushes in a situation like that. The coach is always the idiot.''

Keith Miller famously put the pressure of Test cricket in context by comparing it to a ''Messerschmitt up your arse''. Osieck uses his time coaching Turkish club Fenerbahce to put his present plight in perspective.

''That was a little bit intense,'' he says with a chuckle. ''They would throw some stuff at you when you were at an away game. The coins and the plastic cups of yoghurt. On the other hand, when you win they carry you on their shoulders and throw you in the air.''


Here? Osieck says he is recognised in the street more than when he first arrived in Sydney three years ago. ''But everyone is very polite. In Turkey, there were times you wouldn't go out at all.''

However, if the Oman draw did not increase the Osiecks' dry-cleaning bill, it came at a time when there was a sense of diminishing returns from Australia's high-profile imported coaches. Guus Hiddink departed a genius. Pim Verbeek gained a pass mark for World Cup qualification, but was pilloried after the Socceroos' thrashing by Germany. Osieck has not yet guaranteed a place in Brazil. Indeed, if you believe the harshest critics, he has imperilled it.

The obvious counterpoint is that performances merely reflect the talent at the respective coaches' disposal; and that Osieck has inherited the arthritic remains of Hiddink's stellar squad and Verbeek's hand-me-downs.

''The fact is, we are in a period of transition,'' Osieck says. ''People take a lot of things for granted based on previous successful qualification campaigns. The competition in Asia is a really tight one. Most people probably don't have the right assessment of that. But that is no excuse at all. It is part of my contract here. I know what I am expected to do. So when things don't go our way, like in the last game, then of course we have to live with that.''

A common criticism is that Osieck has been too slow to integrate younger players. That, reflexively, he has drawn on fading warriors. He remains defiant.

''So, I omit some of the experienced boys and I hear, 'How can he do that? He's our hero. He's our best player ever. He should be playing.' Then if you bring in the young boys, and they don't function right away because they need to grow into it, they say, 'How can he play the young boys? We need the older players.' When you have 10 people you have 10 opinions. If you have 100 people, you have 100 opinions. You get lost. You have to stick to your own guns.''

We are in a period of transition. People take a lot of things for granted.

So what, if not tactics and selection, went wrong in that jaw-droppingly poor first 50 minutes against Oman? Osieck suggests that some younger players were distracted by the pre-game commitments that had, previously, fallen on ''just a few''. ''It is a personality-building process,'' he says. ''It takes time.''

He also blames nerves. ''They made some mistakes I never expected. Easy losses of the ball and a bit of lack of determination I would not normally see. Maybe some guys playing first time at the qualifying level, and they didn't do well.''

But the voices of dissent have grown louder. Perhaps as the consequence of a wonderful A-League season, any sense of cultural cringe in local football has dissipated. No longer is a foreign passport and a fancy CV sufficient to convince the critics that the imported coach knows best. Not with Ange Postecoglou, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic in the wings.

Osieck supports the call for a ''homegrown'' coach. If not immediately, and at his own expense.

''To have a foreign coach here, it is not an eternal solution. I know all these guys here. They are good people. I like to talk to them, we always have good discussions. Of course, later on, one of them will later be in charge of the national team. Hopefully much later, because my target is to get us to Brazil.''

The last phrase is telling. My target. Not just the Socceroos' target. Only once has he been on the bench at the World Cup, as assistant manager of the winning West German team in 1990. So there is a reassuring sense of personal ambition about his current quest to take his own team to Rio.

So you have an emotional investment? ''I can guarantee you.''

Osieck was coach of Urawa Red Diamonds, who play in Saitama Stadium, the venue for Tuesday night's game. ''I definitely enjoyed it when I was there. We had great games, great crowds. 62,000 for the [Asian] Champions League final and for a friendly against Manchester United. Some of [Japan's] players played for me.''

But experience has taught Osieck not to confuse familiarity with any perceived advantage.

''Advantage?'' he says with a rueful grin. ''Before the Oman game I watched so many players and games. I was aware. But when you make some basic mistakes then you can forget about all your advantages, all your preparation. So I don't pay much attention to that. I know the Japanese players and our boys and what we have to do. It's that simple.''

Osieck cites the ''typical Aussie fighting spirit'' as a reason to believe his team will turn things around. He compares the mentality of the Australian players to the Germans. ''There was a saying: 'You have only beaten the German team when the stadium manager has switched off the lights.' In that respect, the Australians are very similar.''

But how confident can he be the Socceroos will make it to Brazil? ''As coach, you can't convey any positive spirit if you don't have belief yourself. I always say, 'When you are not convinced yourself, you cannot convince anyone.'''