The Socceroos are the third national team to be coached by Bert van Marwijk.The Socceroos gathered together in freezing Oslo in March, shivering and nervous about what the future might hold.
They were heading to a World Cup in just a few months but the coach that steered them to Russia had gone.
Out went Ange Postecoglou, and in his place came Bert van Marwijk – a third Dutchman to oversee Australia’s World Cup campaign in four tournaments.
It wasn’t that the Socceroos were wedded to Postecoglou.
Everyone knew the shifting sands of modern-day football, where coaches and players move on or are moved on with alarming regularity.
It’s that Postecoglou placed national pride – along with exacting standards – at the centre of his heart-on-the-sleeve coaching tenure.
So the Socceroos had plenty of questions.
What did this Dutch bloke know about Australian football?
Did he care?
Was the 65-year-old out to pick up one last pay cheque on the way to retirement?
What followed only added to the doubts.
On a wintry Norwegian night, Australia suffered their worst loss in recent memory, a 4-1 drubbing to a team that hadn’t reached a World Cup in two decades.
“The first camp when he came in, and after the game, you could say we were a little bit unsure,” Tomi Juric told AAP.
Van Marwijk sensed it.
He also saw it in the performance, and said so.
“Right from the get-go when he addressed us then, and it’s been a common theme since then, it’s been not having anyone in camp who has doubts about what we will achieve,” goalkeeper Mat Ryan said.
“All it takes is one little distraction or one little doubt from somebody and it can affect our preparations or our plans, what we want to achieve.”
So the Socceroos began to believe once more.
Without disrespecting Postecoglou’s ways, the Dutchman set about dismantling his approach and instilling his own.
They would play without a rigid adherence to possession but with a focus on space, containing opponents and then breaking lines.
And they would lighten up.
Socceroos stalwart Mark Milligan said the penny dropped in the days after leaving Norway for another friendly in London, when the players realised the trust that van Marwijk was giving them.
“We felt it in the couple of days leading into that Colombia game,” Milligan said.
“He gave us a lot of information before the Norway game and the way we operated under Ange was that we had to take everything very literally.
“Bert gives us a lot of information but also gives us the freedom to express that in the way that we want.
“Our structure has to be good but within that we can play and make decisions … you could see the boys started to really understand his way of thinking and what he really expected of us then.”
A somewhat fortuitous 0-0 draw later, the Socceroos began to believe.
Two months later, Australia’s national team re-grouped in Turkey for a hot weather training camp with a different mindset to the previous camp.
“The atmosphere came to a good point. Things are going well. Much better than the previous camp. We know him better and he knows us better,” Juric said.
“Things have lightened up and we’re comfortable. We joke around a bit more, all of us in general.”
Daniel Arzani, blooded into the national team by van Marwijk, echoed the feelings from other Socceroos in praising the Dutchman’s directness.
“Some coaches say one thing and mean something else but not Bert. He’s very clear with what he wants. That’s what I like about him,” he said.
“There’s no middle ground. I think that’s great.
“Coaches confuse players sometimes. He doesn’t.
“He’s very experienced and has got very experienced people working with him as well.”
With two decades of coaching behind him, van Marwijk felt an understanding had grown.
“They don’t have to tell me. I have a feeling that they are feeling well,” he told AAP.
“They are more open than the first few days.
“I met them in Norway. They were so disciplined. I don’t like that much discipline.
“My feeling is there was no space for being yourself and making your own decisions.
“Now there’s more discipline but there’s also space for them to laugh.”
It helped that van Marwijk had some experience dealing with Australians.
During his tenure at Dutch club Feyenoord, he counted a Socceroos ace as one of his own.
“I am learning all the things I’d already heard before about your country,” he said.
“I knew it a little from working with Brett Emerton.
“Maybe he was a good example. He worked very hard.
“A good football player. He never let anyone down and was never complaining.”
With lines of trust established, the Socceroos threw themselves into training in Antalya, undertaking double sessions day after day to prepare for Russia.
Friendly victories over the Czech Republic and Hungary followed, growing confidence and belief.
It may not be enough to save Australia from defeat against heavyweights France on Saturday in Kazan, when the Socceroos begin their World Cup campaign.
But this Dutchman could yet be bestowed the greatest of Australian honours, like his countryman and predecessor Guus Hiddink, and end the tournament with the tag “Aussie Bert”.
Australian Associated Press