Saturday night saw over 35000 people pile in to Westpac Stadium in Wellington to see New Zealand overcome Bahrain by one goal to nil and in doing so qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This is a feat that the All Whites have only achieved once before – back in ’82 – and so naturally, the football fans of New Zealand (myself included) are on a massive high right about now, it was a fantastic night for all involved.
However, sights will now inevitably turn to the World Cup itself and while of course not even the most optimistic fans will expect a New Zealand victory or even qualification from the group stages, there’s still a danger that sights could be set too high. Ricki Herbert acknowledged that he has no designs on winning the competition but did suggest in one of his many post-match interviews (I can’t find a source I’m afraid) that they would cause a few upsets along the way. It’s great to see him in such confident spirits, but a reality check could be prudent.
I’m not trying to play down what a huge achievement this is here, the All Whites have done incredibly well to get to South Africa and deserve all the praise they get. This is an event which will hopefully change the fortunes of football in this country, which could see football finally begin to rival the major Kiwi sports of Rugby and Cricket in the public’s affections and thus be the start of a bigger and brighter future for NZ football – that’s certainly what we all want and what I predicted could happen months ago.
However, if football is to progress as we hope it to, we must be a little bit cautious in our optimism. It’s easy to get a bit carried away in the aftermath of an event that had such a feel good factor about it – seeing 35000 people at a football match in New Zealand is something I’d barely thought possible after all. But we have to remember that this is the first step in what must be seen as a long-term building project for NZ Football.
Qualification for the World Cup will raise the profile of football in New Zealand both domestically and internationally and that will be advantageous in many respects. With more kids recognising a serious future in football, more talented players will be encouraged to continue playing beyond their school years, where football is the most played sport in this country at present. And internationally, the profile of NZ as a nation viable for friendlies etc. will be significantly improved.
This will bring a wealth of prospects for NZ football and as a result, the All Whites may be in an even healthier position when it comes to qualifying for the next tournament. Because that has to be NZ’s aim, to become a mainstay on the international football scene, to make repeat appearances and thus continue to build the success and prestige of a national team which will establish a self-perpetuating cycle of growth for football in New Zealand.
However, the work is not yet done, and it is by no means going to be easy. The 18 players who did so well on Saturday night to get NZ to the World Cup have not eased the pressure from their shoulders yet. Because NZ need to go to the World Cup and put up a fight if football’s time in the limelight in this country is to be any more than a mere flash in the pan. Herbert is apparently confident that they can cause some upsets in South Africa, I’m less so, but I feel it is crucial that they aren’t swept away in each of their group games.
Against Spain at the Confederations Cup earlier this year the All Whites were quite simply embarrassed by the quality of their opposition. Luckily after racing into an early lead the Spanish took their foot off the pedal and the score line didn’t reflect the dominance, but the gulf in class was obvious. Now of course, Spain will do that to many international sides better than NZ too, and that was an under-strength NZ team barely recognisable as the same group of heroes who fought so hard on Saturday night.
But the danger is still there. The truth is that now almost every nation who has also qualified for the World Cup will now be eyeing New Zealand up as perfect group-mates, as an easy three points. Hell, even fans of arch-rivals Australia have been expressing their desire to draw the Kiwis for an easy victory on the FourFourTwo Australia website forums. Such complacency could work into the Kiwi’s hands – I hope it does – but it is also founded upon the reasonable assumption that NZ will be one of the weakest sides there.
That is meant with no disrespect to NZ, I’m a huge fan of many of the players and for me they’re all bloody heroes after Saturday night. But the simple fact is that embarrassingly often Tony Lochead can’t cross the ball into the penalty area nevermind pick out a team-mate, while other squad members are severely limited – Tim Brown is a solid midfielder but has an almost non-existant range of passing. These types of players can cut it in the A-League, but they aren’t genuinely international class, and I say that in the nicest possible way.
And if NZ were to be drawn in a tricky group and get taken apart in their three pool matches, it could do more harm than good to football in this country. Sports fans here can be incredibly fickle – the beloved All Blacks are viciously lambasted sometimes even when they win, and the All Whites have been largely ignored by the majority of the population up until now largely because they haven’t been any good. A series of embarrassing hammerings could well put off the casual supporter and quickly undo the surge in popularity that the initial qualification has brought, and will continue to bring.
So while I am still revelling in Ricki Herbert’s refreshingly expletive-ridden post-match interview, and am still willing to overlook his blatant tactical failings in certain areas because I see him as a genuinely good guy who loves football as much as I do, I hope he is not getting ahead of himself. NZ may well cause an upset in South Africa, stranger things have certainly happened. However, I’m realistic enough to expect them to go there and lose all three of their group matches. If they do though, that will not in itself be a failure.
The important thing is that the team go there and put up a fight. If they lose all three games so be it, but they at least have to show that they can compete at that level by making a couple of the games close, and ideally making a big team sweat. In fact, much as I hate to admit it, it would be perfect for NZ to open up against England – the Three Lions usually struggle past the smaller nations at major tournaments and always start slowly, NZ could well make us sweat if we face them first up and that would boost the Kiwi’s and their fans no end.
However, what is important is that the nation retains a similar sense of realism. Ricki, in suggesting that they will cause a few upsets, has already started building up the prospects of the Kiwi team, and I’m not so sure that they can deliver. The worst thing that could happen now is for the team’s chances to be built up beyond their realistic capabilities because the subsequent disappointment would create a mood of disillusionment amongst the fans who had only recently come aboard the bandwagon.
So don’t think that I’m trying to put a downer on things, I most certainly am not. I’m still over the moon that the All Whites are going to the World Cup and I can’t wait to see them there. However this has always been, even if few people realised it, about more than the World Cup. Obviously qualification was the direct consequence of Saturday night’s win, but a more fundamental albeit indirect consequence is the raising of the profile of NZ football and of the future of the sport in this country. That’s what excites me the most, that I could live in this lovely country and not feel like an outsider for being obsessed with football.
If that is to happen, it will be a long and slow process, of which this is only the first step. Going to South Africa with high expectations could well undermine this progress at the first hurdle though, and so I hope that Herbert and NZF don’t build up New Zealand’s chances too much, or it will only create greater disappointment and perhaps disillusionment if or when the All Whites struggle to live up to expectation. If football is to progress here in the long run, we need to remain realistic and not hope to climb too high too fast, or we’ll come unstuck.
Have your say:
Can the All Whites ruffles some feathers in South Africa? Or do they represent three easy points for their opponents? Is this the beginning of something big for NZ Football? Please let me know what you think below…