Climbing the next mountain

New Zealand soccer’s uphill challenge at the World Cup next year

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

The All Whites’ victory over Bahrain in the World Cup qualifier has led to all sorts of hyperbolic claims about football. Rugby is dead, proclaimed some commentators, as on the same night the All Blacks bumbled their way to a win over Italy, in a match that could charitably be called boring. The intensity of the crowd in Wellington showed a kind of frenzy rarely seen in New Zealand sporting fixtures, and the way Wellington exploded took many commentators by surprise. After all, neither network news had previewed the first leg over in Bahrain, presumably because of (a) the expense and (b) ‘no-one’ cared.

That night in Wellington, All Whites (who may need to consider a name-change given the tournament is hosted in South Africa) qualified for the world’s biggest sporting event – the Football World Cup – for only the second time in the nation’s history. New Zealand’s success in reaching the World Cup could see considerable change in the way the sport is perceived.

Plenty of comparisons were made in the build-up and aftermath to the Bahrain games, to New Zealand’s previous appearance at the Football World Cup in 1982. Then, a New Zealand team, mostly composed of amateurs managed to get through a mammoth qualifying campaign to reach the final sixteen (the World Cup has since expanded to 32 teams). Names such as Wynton Rufer, Grant Turner and Steve Sumner became household names.

However, the post-82 period was seen as wasted years, when the authorities were seen as failing to capitalise on the sport’s increased popularity, and also failed to take advantage of rugby’s falling popularity in the aftermath of the 1981 Springbok tour. To be fair, it wasn’t just football which achieved in the 1980s. The decade was also New Zealand cricket’s Golden Age, 1984 and 1988 are to date, New Zealand’s two most successful Olympics, and Auckland hosted a hugely successful Commonwealth Games at the decade’s end. .

New Zealand’s recent qualification has seen cautionary warnings repeated, that authorities should not waste another opportunity to gain a foothold in New Zealand’s sporting consciousness. New Zealand Football Chief Executive (and 1982 World Cup goalkeeper) Frank van Hattum suggests it is pointless comparing the two eras. “There is no comparison. The game was different in 82, it was amateur, and that wonderful adventure over two years ended and thus the book closed as there were no major games for another eighteen months and many players retired. Yes failure occurred, but money was still an issue. Now it is all professional.”

van Hattum suggests it would be easier to market the sport now. “[There are] so many more opportunities, media presence and marketing and hype to make it happen. Plus we have a committed board, staff and federation structure and agreement on a strategy. It will be delivered. Defining what success looks like may be our biggest issue.”

There have also been some crucial shifts in football consumption within the country. With the advent of pay-TV New Zealand sporting fans have considerably more opportunities to watch football – whether it’s the English, Italian or Spanish leagues, or the professional Australian/New Zealand A-League. The Wellington Phoenix have given some New Zealand players the chance to play week-in week-out professional football, and more New Zealanders have made the step up to professional football overseas than ever before.

The atmosphere in Wellington was testament to this greater exposure of football and the crowd was reminiscent of “foreign” football fans. University club footballer Giuliano Serrao (who before moving to New Zealand was an AC Roma supporter) said the atmosphere was as heightened as a European football game.

However, he suggests New Zealand fans have a way to go to emulate the European fans, with their history. “It was better [than Europe] because the whole stadium was pulling in the same direction, having a good time and cheering like mad whilst respecting each other. It wasn’t, in a way, as good as I hoped, as lots of people didn’t know the chants and it was very difficult to get chants going, and get behind the team.”

A further advantage to maintain popularity for New Zealand Football is the sheer number of young people playing the sport. In the early days of New Zealand football, player numbers were bolstered by immigrants or ex-pat footballers, and there was very limited media exposure. Now, football is the most popular sport among young people. van Hattum however is not assuming that this will make New Zealand Football’s job easier.

“The big issue remains is not the numbers but the ability to manage the numbers: quality versus quantity. Remember our game has every age group right up to old age pensioners, men and women and many variations of the game from a kick around to five a side, indoor, outdoor, beach, futsall etc etc. If I had to pick one issue that will hold us back it is facilities and the weather. Not enough grounds – and when we have enough, invariably each season sees 4-5 cancellations on a weekend and many trainings cancelled. Which is very bad for developing players’ skills, which becomes our biggest deficiency.”

Crucial though for New Zealand Football, is a successful campaign. New Zealand sporting fans, like many other sporting fans, are fair-weather fans. Basketball, for example, struggled to maintain its momentum following New Zealand’s impressive fourth place at the 2002 Basketball World Champs. Teams such as the New Zealand Breakers, New Zealand Warriors, and the Black Caps have needed success to build fan-bases, and when results faltered, so too did crowd numbers. This suggests that the All Whites’ performance at the World Cup – especially without the nation-capturing qualifying campaign of the 1982 – would play a crucial role.

The 1982 campaign was so arduous that getting to the World Cup was seen as the main achievement. At the actual World Cup, the All Whites were thrashed 4-0 by Brazil, 3-0 by the Soviet Union, and 5-2 by Scotland. Van Hattum agrees that the ’82 side may have sold themselves short. “Back in 82 [qualifying] was the mountain that Hilary climbed. We did OK, but in truth with a bit more belief and experience could have done better.”

However, there would be very few football fans who would have similar expectations this time around. The abbreviated build-up means the All Whites have more to prove. First of all, they will need to justify the easy route through which they qualified – a route sure to be tightened in the future. Secondly, given the quality of the sides which didn’t make qualify (e.g. Serbia, Russia, Egypt), massive blowouts by the All Whites would inevitably lead to criticism.

Thirdly, Australia showed what could be done when they qualified in 2006. Australia in their previous World Cup experience in 1974 left without scoring a single goal, and earned a single point through a goalless draw with Chile. However in 2006, their next experience, they made it out of a group featuring Croatia, Japan, and defending champions Brazil, and lost in the second round to eventual champions Italy courtesy of a controversial last minute penalty.

van Hattum says that New Zealand are not intending to just make up the numbers. “We need to set our sites higher and obtain points. Credibility is not getting there now. It is getting there and doing something. Ricky [Herbert, the All Whites coach] and the team are well aware of that, and it is not a board request. The players themselves have that expectation.”

Captain Ryan Nelsen has said he hoped for the weakest group possible, to give New Zealand a chance of making it through to the next round. Some fans may however need some convincing. Serrao for example says “I think the most important thing is to put up a decent performance in all three games. Realistically I don’t expect them to go through. But this doesn’t mean that they can’t do it.“

New Zealand’s experience at the Beijing Olympics where they were thrashed by Brazil, or this year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they were humbled by European champions Spain, and openly celebrated a draw against non-World Cup qualifiers Iraq might dampen expectations.

That said, World Cups throw all kinds of pressure on favoured nations, and New Zealand may find themselves with less to lose than a Spain, or an England. Given football is a less ‘top-heavy’ global sport, there’s more possibility that a big name could lose to a lowly ranked team than in any other sport, for example defending champions France losing to eventual quarter-finalist Senegal in 2002, or upset runs by teams like North Korea in 1966 or Cameroon in 1990.

In fact, teams which have looked ordinary in the lead-up to World Cups have done well in the tournament environment – Italy and France in 2006, Germany in 2002, Argentina in 1986. On the flipside, New Zealand junior teams have recently proven competitive on the global scale – the last Under 17 Girls’ team missed out on the next round after a last minute equaliser by England, and the Under 17 Boys’ team qualified for the Second Round unbeaten, only to lose to eventual finalists and tournament hosts Nigeria.

Many commentators have seen New Zealand’s future entry into Asia as vital for the ongoing development of New Zealand football. Serrao agrees. “Oceania for us is a cul-de-sac. By playing in the Asia Football Confederation it’ll be harder to make the World Cup but we’ll play more games, which means more experience, TV rights and lucrative sell-out crowds.” Australia were the top Asian qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, and would have gained valuable experience playing in a variety of hostile environments, and against different football styles.

Further, more international games need to be played. Serrao notes that “the All Whites don’t play as many games as they should against international opposition. so it will be good for the players’ experience.” The Tall Blacks for example, played a huge amount of international games before their successful 2002 campaign – a pointer at what needs to be done. However, the small windows for internationals, and the far-flung nature of the team suggests that this would be more difficult.

Despite the sheer amount of work that both the All Whites and New Zealand Football would need to do to get some downstream momentum post-2010, many fans and players are excited about the chance to compete in South Africa with the game’s stars and glamour teams. Van Hattum says “it is a life changing experience for any footballer and even now, players from other countries that have been several world cups will still see this as the highlights of their careers. It is the pinnacle.” ENDS