Ex-Socceroos coach and notorious A-League critic, Pim Verbeek, has a new-found admiration for the local game, but says the national team will never be world-class while the domestic season is so short.
In an exclusive interview with FourFourTwo, the 58-year-old Dutchman defended his controversial reign of the Socceroos and said his 2010 World Cup veterans deserved more respect.
He also paid tribute to Ange Postecoglou’s rookie Roos who bowed out in the group stage of Brazil after earning plaudits for their 3-2 loss to footballing powerhouse, the Netherlands.
Verbeek, who famously stated it would take an hour to outline everything that was wrong with the A-League, has kept in contact with Melbourne City coach John van’t Schip and a handful of Dutch players in the league.
“I was in Australia October last year and I saw a few matches,” Verbeek said.
“I follow it. It’s really good at the moment. There are new clubs like Western Sydney Wanderers and new stadiums. It’s not such an easy league now – there are many returning Socceroos and the football level is going up.”
He does, however, see the brevity of the Australian season as a potential impediment to future Socceroo success, asserting the skill level will stagnate with such a short fixture list.
“We have to be realistic,” he said.
“Teams like Australia will never get the same football skills as Spain.
“You always find some players who can have that quality of players you get in Chile or Spain or Italy, but as a team, it is difficult, because the A-League is still only six to seven months – it is not a 10 or 11 month tough league.
“What you have to do is play more friendly matches for the national team – that’s the way you improve.”
Verbeek is a big fan of former A-League tactician and now Socceroos mentor, Ange Postecoglou, and believes the FFA made a smart decision by granting him a five-year contract so that he can build a side for the Asian Cup and Russia 2018.
“If you look at how inexperienced the players were, I think they did quite well, except for the first 15 minutes against Chile – they were nervous and didn’t know what to expect,” Verbeek said.
“In the second game against Holland, they did exceptionally well.
“After beating Spain 5-1 everyone in Holland was very confident – I think I was the only one in Holland that knew they should never underestimate the Australians. They deserved a point. They deserved at least a point.”
He was thrilled by how some of the players he had blooded in the national team performed. Captain, Mile Jedanik, in particular, took his eye.
“I knew he was good but I didn’t know he was that good,” he added.
“But that has to do with his mentality. Early in his career, he left Australia to play in Turkey, and I was there several times in Ankara and saw him. It’s not any easy league to play in but he was always focused on being a better player.”
Postecoglou is still picking up plaudits for Australia’s spirited yet ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign in Brazil, where they failed to earn a point, while Verbeek is seen as a coach of defensive football, who never quite understood the aggressive, never say die ethos of Australian sport.
But as he comes to the end of his tenure as mentor of the Moroccan Under 20, Under 17 and Olympic sides, Verbeek is keen to dispel notions that his 2010 team was somehow un-Australian in attitude.
They qualified for South Africa 2010 unbeaten, and secured four points at the tournament, bowing out on goal difference.
With a squad made up, in the main, of the same players who advanced to the Round of 16 in 2006, expectations were high that they could emulate the feats of the so-called Golden Generation.
It all seemed to unravel, however, in the 4-0 loss against a rampant Germany.
The horror of that group opening match continues to mould perceptions of Verbeek but the coach says the outrage over the result was unrealistic.
Attacking talisman, Tim Cahill, was sent off after 55 minutes with the score at 2-0. Germany later went onto crush England 4-1 and Argentina 4-0.
Verbeek is adamant his side played to the best of their abilities on that fateful day in Durban.
“We could have played against Germany with nine defenders,” he laughed, “but we played 4-4-2, and nobody expected Germany to be that good.
“We were outplayed with 11 players and more outplayed with 10.”
“There is no rule in football that says if you had done this then something better would have happened.”
He bristles at suggestions he didn’t allow his side to play attacking football, and the notion that in that game, Australia were unworthy of the national sporting myth.
The Socceroos, he said, were up against it from the outset after missing a host of regulars.
“Harry (Kewell) hadn’t played for four to- five months before the 2010 World Cup, Bresciano had a back problem and Josh (Kennedy) had problems, so there wasn’t choice,” Verbeek said.
“But this never-say-die spirit I saw was in Brazil and also in 2010. They were the same - my players in 2010 were fighting like hell for every moment.
“People forget we played with 10 players in two games and then we had the pressure to win the game against Serbia.
“Against Ghana (in the second group game), we were also very unlucky with the red card for Kewell.
“It was 1-0 to us and he got an unbelievable red card. We played an hour with 10 players. And with a little more luck against Serbia, we could have scored another goal and qualified for the next round.”
He also believes his ageing squad was unfairly targeted during and after the tournament.
“I have complete respect for my players,” he added.
“The guys who were there, like Craig Moore, Lucas Neil, Jason Culina... they worked so hard, they flew around the world to play qualification games and they never complained.
“They had that tough Australian mentality. They were four years older in 2010 than when they were at their peak in 2006, but it’s a lack of respect to say they didn’t do well in2010. They did a fantastic job.”
Four years on, Verbeek believes Postecoglou, as an Australian coach, will be given more latitude from fans to mould a team.
That said, his period in Australia stand out as a career highlight.
“People always wrote we (the Socceroos) weren’t spectacular enough but if you play eight games a year, and are unbeaten for the World Cup (qualifiers), I think you did a great job," he sid.
“People can have a different opinion but that’s okay.”