The Man With the Midas Touch

Long before Guus Hiddink took over Russia's national team midway through 2006 he was considered a lucky coach after quickly turning mediocre teams into formidable opponents.

The charismatic Dutchman became a national hero in South Korea in 2002 by leading the World Cup co-host to the semifinals, knocking out the much more fancied Italy and Spain along the way.

Four years later he took Australia to its first World Cup in 32 years after it upset former world champion Uruguay in a playoff.

In Germany, the Australians, regarded by many as outsiders, advanced from a group that included Brazil, Croatia and Japan, before succumbing to eventual champion Italy after conceding a controversial last-minute penalty.

Hiddink's powers were on display again last month when he guided unfancied Russia to Euro 2008 following an amazing turn of events in the qualifiers.

Russia looked well on its way to next year's finals after its Moscow win over England in October but apparently threw away its chance by losing to Israel in Tel Aviv the following month.

Its fortunes were revived, however, when already-qualified Croatia stunned England 3-2 at Wembley four days later.

Hiddink, 61, likened the miraculous escape to playing Russian Roulette.

"Only Russians can put five bullets in a six-chamber pistol, pull the trigger and survive," he said after his team squeezed past tiny Andorra 1-0 in its last qualifier to book a place in Austria and Switzerland.

The players credited Hiddink.

"Guus' magic made it possible. He is just one lucky guy," was the verdict of Russia captain Andrei Arshavin.

Winger Yuri Zhirkov echoed his teammate: "It was an impossible dream that turned into reality."

Hiddink, who also led his native Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals in 1998, has always maintained that his success is the result of hard work, good planning and preparation, but some find the magic theory too tempting to resist.

When Russia made a slow start to its Euro 2008 campaign with home draws against Croatia and Israel, Russia's football chief Vitaly Mutko questioned Hiddink's "magic touch."

"I was told you're a magician. Well, maybe I was misled," the temperamental Mutko, who was responsible for luring Hiddink to Russia, said after Israel scored a late goal to snatch a 1-1 draw in Moscow in October 2006.

The remark apparently irked Hiddink, but he soon found a winning formula, turning an often underachieving Russian side into a redoubtable force.

Hiddink's reputation as lucky was further enhanced during the Euro 2008 draw when Russia avoided a difficult group with the Netherlands, Italy and France and instead was drawn alongside Greece, Spain and Sweden.

Russian media immediately made comparisons with Greece, which, under German coach Otto Rehhagel, shocked Europe's more established powers by capturing the title in 2004.

Others pointed to Denmark, which triumphed at Euro 92 after replacing Yugoslavia on the eve of the eight-team tournament.

"Just look at the Danes," wrote the Sovietsky Sport daily.

"They were lying on the beach when they were called to replace Yugoslavia at the last minute. They sneaked through the back door and came away with the trophy.

"Russia was the last team to qualify for the 2008 finals, so logically we should have a good chance to go all the way."

The daily Sport-Express, meanwhile, has boldly predicted Russia's victory next June.

"Only seven months left before we can start celebrating." the newspaper said in an editorial.

Most experts, however, remained cautious, suggesting that Russia would do well just to survive the first round.

That is something it has failed to achieve in a major tournament since 1988 when, as the Soviet Union, it reached the final of the European Championship in Germany.

"The results of the draw just proved that Hiddink is an extremely lucky coach," said former Russia skipper Igor Shalimov. "I'm cautiously optimistic and would even dare to suggest that with Hiddink we have a good chance to qualify from our group for the first time in 20 years."