Farewell to the former Socceroos manager, a man of honesty, humour and integrity


Uniformly they praised his kindness, integrity, humanity and sense of humour.

I can only add my sentiments to those expressed earlier.

Former Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek has died at the age of 63.Credit:John Donegan

Verbeek was always willing to talk and explain his thinking and was not afraid to say things he felt to be true but which he knew would not necessarily find favour with the soccer public or media.

His opinion that it was better to play in the reserves at a big European club than be a first-teamer in the fledgling A-League was a case in point, his argument being that working and training every day with top-level players would benefit an emerging Australian talent more than playing weekly with average ones here. Not surprisingly, it didn’t play too well with the gallery.

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An invitation to sit down and have a coffee meant an hour or more immersed in wide-ranging discussion about any facet of the game: he was always up for debate, fascinated by the endless permutations and possibilities soccer offered and happy to share his opinions and solicit other views.

He was very much a product of the Dutch soccer culture in which he grew up.

Verbeek came of age as a teenager in the 1970s when clubs from the Netherlands were becoming a force and Dutch thinking and tactics were revolutionising how clubs around Europe approached the game.

Any fan could not have but helped to imbibe that culture, vision and self belief which has so characterised Dutch soccer ever since.

But he also had a pragmatic streak, one born from experience and the reality of coaching teams that could not draw upon top-level talent in the way that the leading Dutch sides or the Netherlands’ national team could.

His coaching career took him along many winding roads, from close to home in the Netherlands to the J-League in Japan and sometimes to improbable destinations, such as the Netherlands Antilles.

It was with his countryman Guus Hiddink that he gained prominence, as assistant when the pair went on that wild ride in the 2002 World Cup, taking the unfancied co-hosts South Korea to the semi-finals.

Hiddink moved on to the Socceroos three years later, and, when he quit after the 2006 World Cup it was Verbeek who took over.

He was on a hiding to nothing. Hiddink had achieved rock star status with Australia’s golden generation, reaching the knockout stages in Germany, but the group would be four years older when the next World Cup came around and the players coming through were not of the same quality.

Verbeek’s task in qualifying Australia for South Africa 2010 was made more complex by the fact that this was the first time the Socceroos had to negotiate a path through Asia.

But his combination of tough decision making, pragmatism and tactical acuity – functional and  solid rather than stylish – saw Australia qualify  with several games to spare. It was an excellent achievement although one taken for granted at the time by a public who could not countenance the idea that the Socceroos might ever struggle against Asian opposition.

Pim Verbeek hugs Tim Cahill after a match at the 2010 World Cup.

Pim Verbeek hugs Tim Cahill after a match at the 2010 World Cup.Credit:Steve Christo

The level of competition and the standards required to reach the top was never far from his mind.

Contemplating the 2010 finals in South Africa, he was aware that he was often criticised in Australia for adopting safety first tactics which prioritised results over performance.

In a hotel foyer in Melbourne he shared a coffee with me, exasperation in his voice, explaining that the Socceroos were up against a star-studded German side, a high-quality Serbia and Africa’s finest team, Ghana, in their group. “Where are my players from Bayern Munich? Who do I have that plays for  Juventus? Do I have anyone at Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal?” he said, explaining his cautious approach.

In the end it didn’t work. A disastrous 4-0 loss in the first game against Germany in which Tim Cahill was sent off scuppered the Socceroos before they really got going.

His decision to change his line-up, leave out regulars and bring in new players in a tactical reshuffle went spectacularly wrong. But his reaction in the post-match press conference was typical of the man.

“I never blame any of my players, I have no problem saying it’s my responsibility,” he said.

Verbeek did not shy away from the hard decisions. He thought for himself, accepted the outcomes and was not afraid to face critics when they came.

And he always had the Australian game in his heart, even when he moved on after the 2010 World Cup.

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