1 November 2009 ~ Sporting success over Australia is always a cause for merriment in New Zealand. But when Wellington Phoenix defeated Gold Coast United 6-0 in a recent Australian League match the celebrations were a little more fervent than normal. The Phoenix are New Zealand’s sole representative in the A-League and such a result had never been seen before. The timing of the result couldn’t have been better – three weeks before the New Zealand national team take on Bahrain in the second leg of a 2010 World Cup play-off.
The success of the national team is very much tied in with the fortunes of the Wellington Phoenix because six of the Phoenix players are also in the All Whites squad while Ricki Herbert is the coach of both sides. “Since we drew with Iraq in the Confederations Cup in South Africa the players have been buzzing with confidence,” says Herbert, who played for Wolves in the 1980s. “The result against Gold Coast is further evidence of that.” The New Zealand public is also in a state of excitement about the Bahrain match and Wellington’s 35,000-capacity Westpac Arena sold out weeks ago. After a goalless first leg draw in Bahrain victory in the second leg would mean New Zealand qualify for their first World Cup since 1982.
Herbert played for the All Whites in that tournament that saw New Zealand lose to Scotland (5-2), the Soviet Union (3-0) and Brazil (4-0). His coach in 1982 was an Englishman, John Adshead, a former Exeter City youth player. “Ricki has done a great job,” he says. “They’re very reliant on the ability and organisational skills of [Blackburn’s] Ryan Nelson but they have a very solid defence and are strong up front. I think they can beat Bahrain and if they qualify they will have earned the right.”
Timing is everything. Traditionally rugby union is New Zealand’s dominant sport but at the moment the game is struggling. It’s predicted that the 2011 World Cup, which will be hosted in New Zealand, will make a loss of around £20 million due to a lack of demand for tickets. Domestic rugby is also struggling and the game’s top stars, such as All Black Dan Carter, have left the country to play in Europe. “It’s a big opportunity for football to make some ground on rugby,” says Adshead. “If the All Whites make it to South Africa it could have a huge impact on the New Zealand public. It will earn the New Zealand FA millions of pounds which could be ploughed back into the sport.”
Qualification for the 2010 World Cup would also put New Zealand on the same stage as their great sporting rivals Australia, who qualified back in June. “Between 1976 and 1983 New Zealand had a better domestic league than Australia and a better national team,” says Adshead. “There is so much room for improvement and if New Zealand do qualify for the World Cup we must seize the moment and make it count.”
Realistically, football is always likely to play second fiddle to rugby in New Zealand and the All Whites have a long way to go before they can consider themselves an equal to the Socceroos, but after New Zealand’s draw against Bahrain and Wellington Phoenix’s 6-0 thrashing of Gold Coast United the bar has been raised. Now it’s up to Ricki Herbert and his All Whites to live up to the hype. Neil Billingham