New Zealand’s surprise 1-0 victory over Serbia in their World Cup warm up match in Austria last night confirmed a strange paradox about the All Whites: they will be a team that neutrals are pre-disposed to support, and a team that neutrals will be pre-disposed to oppose.
When any major sporting event rolls around, neutral fans everywhere find themselves strangely drawn to the underdogs, the little teams who don’t really stand a chance, but who are there giving it a go and have the chance to cause a few magical upsets. South Africa 2010 is no exception, with the most likely candidates being Honduras, North Korea and New Zealand, while South Africa would have been if they didn’t have home advantage.
I think most people are unsure about North Korea, given the political situation, and so New Zealand and Honduras are the likely candidates for neutral underdog support this time around, and coincidentally both are making just their second World Cup appearance, after they both debuted on the world stage in the same tournament, way back in Spain 1982. So New Zealand, that little country in the pacific, where the hobbits live, could be getting a little extra support from neutral fans in South Africa this year.
Or at least, they might. The thing about the underdog is that they’re usually pretty harmless. They’re colourful, they’re just pleased to be involved, they come along and they play the game in a good spirit and genuinely enjoy themselves. Their games have a party atmosphere and when they get outplayed by superior opposition, they don’t really mind. I remember in 1998 when Jamaica qualified, you’d see random pasty Englishman sporting the yellow shirts around Shrewsbury… it could have been Cool Runnings all over again, but though they beat Japan they lost to Croatia and got hammered by Argentina and went home happy.
The trouble with the All Whites is that… well, they’re not going to be quite so harmless. I’m not saying they’re going to be any good – to be brutally honest, they haven’t got many players with much real footballing talent. However, as a side they are extremely fit, they’re extremely physical and they are going to be very difficult to beat. They’ve got four big strong strikers (Smeltz, Fallon, Killen, Wood) who will make life very difficult for defenders (as Vidic and Subotic found out last night), and as such they pretty much play in one way.
Put simply, there’s a chance that New Zealand could in some ways become the Stoke City of the World Cup. Not overly comfortable on the ball, quite unlikely to play the sort of free-flowing and exciting football that the neutrals love, the All Whites may well divide opinions.
That, however, is no bad thing. Because why should they just turn up, put on a show, and roll over? NZ are going to the World Cup and they’re well aware of their limitations, they’re well aware that they don’t have the talent to compete with most of the other nations there, but they’re not going to give up that easily. They’re going to play to the strengths that they do have and they’re going to give it a damn good go, and fair play to them for that.
It would be easy for Ricki Herbert and his men to sit back and think that they’ve done the job just by being there, enjoy a few weeks in South Africa and then head home with a wealth of public good will behind them. But instead, they’re taking it seriously, and as such they may make less friends that people imagine. They could very easily cause an upset or two here: Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia will have seen what they did against Serbia last night, what they almost did against the Australians last week (they went ahead and eventually lost to a last second goal) and they’ll be worried.
So when you’re gearing up for the World Cup, don’t underestimate New Zealand. Yes, they might be one of the underdogs, but they aren’t there to roll over. They’ve got a nasty bite when they want to, they’ve got some big lads in their side and they will give some good teams a real run for their money, especially if their recent form is anything to go by. It might not be pretty, in fact I’d be very surprised if it was, but New Zealand are an underdog that is still very much worth supporting, because there’s some fight in them, and upsets could well be on the cards.
Have your say:
Will you be supporting the All Whites at the World Cup? Do you see them as underdogs? Or are they there with the ability to make a real impression? Leave a comment below…