Wellington, Nov 28 (DPA) Winning the right to go to South Africa for the 2010 finals has put football in the spotlight in New Zealand – where rugby is the national sport – for the first time in a generation.
It has been a long time coming. The All Whites have made the finals only once before and that was in Spain in 1982.
Despite being minnows on the international football stage, they beat Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and China to get to Spain after a gruelling 14-match qualifying series. Nobody expected them to threaten the giants of the sport in the finals and they predictably went down to Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil.
But the results were not important. In the words of the late New Zealand Football Association World Cup director Charlie Dempsey, “We have won our World Cup – our World Cup was getting to Spain.”
The 2010 squad has had an easier road to the finals, playing only eight qualifying games to win the Oceania title and beat the Asia Confederation’s fifth-placed team Bahrain in a play-off.
New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen is pinning his hopes on a kind draw that will give them games with some of the other lesser teams in the first round and the chance to play in the second.
Nelsen is blunt. “I want the weakest teams possible and hopefully we can get through,” he said.
The tyranny of distance is the biggest problem hindering the development of New Zealand football. The country’s isolation gives its players limited opportunities to compete with the world’s best and improve themselves.
Star All Whites who want to make their mark on the sport have to join clubs in Australia, Europe or America and it is never easy for officials to get them all together and arrange national matches against challenging competition.
The All Whites managed only three games – two against New Caledonia and one World Cup qualifier against Fiji – last year and badly needed the string of friendlies they were able to arrange around this year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa.
They failed to score in three Confederations Cup matches but finished the campaign with a 3-1 friendly win over Jordan in Amman.
Officials and fans alike have no illusions about the prospects of the All Whites footing it with the best footballers on the planet in South Africa next year.
But they will give their all and in reaching the finals they have given the sport a huge fillip that has put soccer on the map again in New Zealand and will encourage a new generation of potential World Cup finalists to take up the game.
Qualifying for South Africa is a dream come true for coach Ricki Herbert, 48, who was in the 1982 squad that went to Spain – the second youngest player after Wynton Rufer, who went on to be named Oceania’s player of the century.
Herbert, a defender who played 61 full internationals for New Zealand before becoming the first home-born coach of the national side in 50 years, also coaches the Wellington Phoenix club which plays in the Australian league.
Quiet, unassuming and conservative, he surprised by dropping the conventional 4-4-2 lineup for the play-offs against Bahrain to play three strikers up front.
Ryan Nelsen, 32, All Whites’ skipper and a veteran with 40 caps, is one of the most successful New Zealanders to make it in top flight world football. Captain of English premier league side Blackburn Rovers, he has played in a FA Cup final, the UEFA Cup and two Confederation Cups.
He showed his class in the Bahrain play-offs, keeping a cool head and rallying his troops when they were under pressure. First capped in 1999, he had a 4-year layoff from international play because of club and family commitments and frustrating injuries, which recurred this year, causing him to miss New Zealand’s third Confederation Cup.
But he sees playing for his country as the highlight of his career and will be the All Whites’ most important player in South Africa.
Nickname: All Whites
FIFA affiliation: 1948
Highest FIFA ranking: 47 – August 2002
Lowest FIFA ranking: 156 – September 2007
Previous World Cup appearances: 1 (1982)
Best World Cup performance: Group Stage
Date qualified for finals: Nov 14, 2009