IT was one of the greatest cream-puffs in the history of Scottish football. As Super Caley were going ballistic at Parkhead back in February 2000, Mark Viduka was absent without leave.

At half-time in the famously ignominious Scottish Cup defeat, and with Inverness already 2-1 to the good, Viduka had interrupted John Barnes'words of dubious wisdom to hurl his boots across the dressing room and announce that he wasn't going back out for the second half. Celtic lost, Barnes was fired and Viduka was sold to Leeds United in a protracted GBP6m deal five months later.

The question now is how such a lackadaisical, moody yet thrillingly gifted individual ended up as captain of Australia at the World Cup finals. For a nation which prides itself on sporting unity, Viduka makes a surprising choice. There are, though, more facets to this complex character than the stereotypically bullish sporting Aussie.

Viduka's half-time strop became immortalised in a tabloid cartoon strip in the aftermath of the Inverness fiasco, but it wasn't the first time the Australian's bizarre behaviour had captured headlines or enraged his paymasters. Indeed, he had Fergus McCann beating the ground with his bunnet in apoplexy before he had even played a game for the club.

Marko Viduka as he was then known, the 'o' was oddly lost in translation once he arrived in Britain, had helped Croatia Zagreb dump Celtic out of the Champions League qualifiers, and the quality of his performance persuaded McCann to part with GBP3m to sign him in November 1998.

However, the move was delayed when Viduka claimed he needed time to recover from the stress of the war which had ravaged Croatia and he disappeared back to Australia "to get his head together". Celtic then claimed he had cut links with the club, again complaining of stress, before Zagreb cranked up the farce by publicly complaining of not having received the fee.

Viduka finally docked at Parkhead in February 1999 but any relief on the club's part was short-lived as he accused people "in high places at Celtic" of "making problems" with the payment to Zagreb. FIFA intervened and the matter was eventually settled in April, but not before McCann's blood pressure had soared dangerously high.

Leeds did not witness quite the same level of theatre as Glasgow had enjoyed but there were still numerous disputes with Peter Reid as Elland Road lurched into financial meltdown.

Middlesbrough paid GBP4.5m for Viduka but, as recently as this February, one disgruntled punter confronted him in the Riverside Stadium car park and asked him, not so politely, to get his finger out after a string of lifeless displays.

"I think people's perception of me is misplaced, "Viduka said. "It goes right back to my time at Celtic. Criticism is part of football and sometimes you do have a shocker. You have got to take it. But do you think I go out on purpose to have a shocker? That's stupid."

But then came the flip side of his half-time inf luence. Middlesbrough were 3-1 down to Steaua Bucharest on aggregate in their UEFA Cup semi-final and Steve McClaren, in his usual fashion, was debating with his coaching staff on what advice to give. Into the silent dressing room stepped Viduka to deliver a speech that George Boateng described as "one of the most inspiring things" he has ever heard. Middlesbrough went on to score three times in one of the greatest comebacks in European football history.

"I did have a little bit of a say, "Viduka recalled almost sheepishly. "We were all down. I just said: 'Fellas, we've got nothing to lose. We have got to go out and have a go at them.' Sometimes when we go into these games we over-compensate in defence. It was just spontaneous."

It's not inconceivable that such a dramatically effective display of off-the-cuff oratory persuaded Guus Hiddink that Viduka should take the captain's armband instead of Craig Moore, the former Rangers centre-back, for their campaign in Germany.

"Mark did very well in the qualification rounds and he took his responsibilities well when we came together, " said Hiddink. "He worked very hard not just on himself but also with the team and it's good to have him."

Viduka admitted the contest with Moore was awkward in the context of their long-standing friendship which stretches back to teenage years.

"It was a difficult situation to be in because we roomed together at the Australia Institute of Sport and we've known each other a long time, " he said. "We both enjoy leading the team but I think whether it was him or me we would have been happy for each other."

In Germany, the 30-yearold will be expected to defeat the land of his fathers in what could turn out to be a decisive game in Group F, which Brazil are expected to romp. The allegiance of Australia's large Croat community will be torn but Viduka has proclaimed unyielding loyalty to his country and to Hiddink. "When it comes to manmanagement, I've never dealt with a person who has the type of ability to be able to get every single player, even those on the bench, to be 100-per cent willing to go out and die for the team, " said the striker.

This summer, expect the boots to stay on.