Former Socceroos boss Guus Hiddink remains the master. And these days, he's guiding the development of one of Australia's cashed-up regional rivals.
Hiddink still has the Midas touch as he plots China’s rise as a world power.
Former Socceroo midfielder Brad Maloney can vouch for that, having experienced his own coaching duel against the Dutch master a few weeks ago in Asia.
Maloney is an assistant coach of Malaysia’s U-23s and met Hiddink’s China 23s in a crunch final group game Olympics qualifier in Kuala Lumpur last month.
“He’s a master tactician, 100%,” Maloney told FTBL.
“He’s still one of the most well-respected coaches in the world.
“As a player, you want to test yourself against the best, and as a coach, it’s the same with someone of Guus’s calibre.”
China were favourites to win the group that also featured Laos and the Philippines.
They were physically strong and technically very good and have players at a high level.
But Hiddink did his homework on the group and came up with some next level coaching moves.
He did change a few players in each match and changed their line up and also the formation.
“We had an idea of what to expect,” continued Maloney, who’s coached in Malaysia for five years, “and once we saw their line up we knew what to expect.
“We had our own game plan that almost paid off for us. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough for us.”
Hiddink’s men were good enough to get the result that dumped Malaysia out and put China into the final Tokyo 2020 qualifiers, taking place in Thailand this January.
Malaysia lead twice but Hiddink’s men scored late to earn a late draw and get the result needed.
The Chinese FA is throwing ridiculous money at coaching and developing the next generation of players, who they hope can emulate the likes of La Liga striker Wu Lei.
China is the latest stop on the 72-year-old’s global coaching odyssey.
This includes the English Premier League (Chelsea), taking the Socceroos to their first World Cup in 32 years and getting them through the group stage in 2006.
Hiddink is a hero in the Korea Republic following an extraordinary semi-final finish in 2002.
And four years earlier, his home nation benefitted from the Guus Magic at France 98, where they lost in the semifinals on penalties to Brazil.
There is even some speculation he could take over from current China national team coach Fabio Cannavaro, who has a vastly different coaching ethos to Hiddink.
But despite his reputation and success, Hiddink remains one of world football’s great advocates for other coaches.
“We bumped into him plenty of times in the hotel and he was happy to have a coffee and talk about football," said Maloney.
“And I can say, genuinely, a nice and approachable man.
“For someone of his stature in the game, it’s unusual to be able to get close to someone who’s had such success. But he was very welcoming towards us.
“The first time we met, he obviously recognized the accent and we talked about his time in Australia in 2005 and 2006.
“I was actually in the crowd that night Guus got the Socceroos to the World Cup, too. I’ll never forget that.”
“Guus has that ability and demeanour and an aura as a coach to get the respect of opposing sides and he knows how to get results.
“He reads opposition teams very well. He does his homework.
“He said he really enjoyed his time in Australia and he loved working with the Aussie players. And we had a good laugh and chat about World Cup 2006.
January’s tournament sets up an intriguing prospect of Hiddink’s China facing the Olyroos.
Australia’s U-23s are coached by Graham Arnold, who names Hiddink as one of his most revered mentors after their World Cup adventure 14 years ago.
How will Arnold go facing his mentor and the coach who got Australia to their first World Cup in 32 years?
“It would be a great game.
“The Olyroos pressed us well and were well organized when we played them in a friendly last month,” added Maloney, a former Perth Glory midfield great.