Noisy neighbours

Football in New Zealand is being threatened by the demands of the Asian Confederation. Ed Jackson explains

In December, with New Zealand still celebrating World Cup qualification, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced a move which may spell the end of the Wellington Phoenix – the country’s representatives in the Australian-based A-League.

The AFC told the Australian federation (FFA) that a New Zealand-based team could only continue in the competition past 2012 if New Zealand players were counted as foreigners. With A-League teams limited to five overseas players in their squad the Phoenix would have to become predominantly Australian. This would surely prove a turn-off for fans, as well as undermining the purpose of having a team in New Zealand – to build the game and develop players in that country.

The AFC’s rationale for their edict is a belief that it isn’t in the continent’s benefit to have a team from another confederation (Oceania) competing in their backyard. The big shame is that the Phoenix may be forced out just as they are realising the potential of professional football in New Zealand. They provided the bulk of the All Whites squad which overcame Bahrain to secure a passage to South Africa, along with star striker Shane Smeltz who spent two years in Wellington before joining Gold Coast United of Queensland at the start of the current campaign.

Previous attempts at running a professional club in New Zealand have ended in disaster. After joining the National Soccer League in 1999, Auckland’s horribly named Football Kingz finished mid-table in their first two seasons then declined steeply, winning just 13 of 72 matches from 2001 to 2004. Average attendances plummeted from a shade over 6,600 in their debut season to 1,273 by the end of 2004.

At that time the team was renamed the New Zealand Knights and joined the new A-League for the first two seasons of that competition. They finished last both times including a 2005-06 season where they managed one win from their 21 matches. The team was then moved from Auckland to Wellington and became the Phoenix. The club’s first season in 2007-08 didn’t lift New Zealand off the bottom of the A-League but with attendances averaging over 11,000 the move was a hit. 2008-09 brought increased success on the pitch, as the club missed a top-four finish, and therefore the Championship play-offs, by a narrow margin. Smeltz also brought New Zealand club football its first superstar, his 12 goals from 21 matches leading to his being voted the A-League’s best player.

This season the Phoenix have spent most of the season in the expanded league’s top six. But the AFC has clearly become concerned at the prospect of a New Zealand team in the Asian Champions League. Two teams from the A-League currently qualify for the lucrative Asian competition, the team at the top of the League at the end of the regular season and the winners of the Championship play-off, the Grand Final. With the Phoenix nearing a maiden play-off appearance, the AFC has decided to draw a line in the sand. Some have speculated that New Zealand’s success over an Asian nation in World Cup qualification may also have caused irritation at AFC headquarters.

Regardless of the motives, the truth is that football in New Zealand urgently needs a professional outlet such as the Phoenix. A key reason for the little progress following the last World Cup appearance by New Zealand – at Spain in 1982 – was the lack of any infrastructure back home. Without something to draw in fans and offer an avenue to professionalism for players the euphoria of qualification will quickly fade as more traditional pursuits such as rugby and cricket take precedence once more. As it is the club is already hampered by restrictions on their A-League status. They don’t have the access to a youth league team as the Australian clubs do and aside from occasional World Cup qualifiers their national team players rarely get a chance to perform together.

Fortunately for the Phoenix, the FFA have long declared their support for having a New Zealand team in the A-League and part of gaining FIFA’s acceptance to join the Asian confederation from Oceania in 2006 was a promise to continue to assist their neighbours. The AFC’s threats carry weight however, with a proposed ban on A-League clubs in the Asian Champions League if the Phoenix isn’t made an “Australian” club by the deadline. Sepp Blatter and his cronies are offering support at the moment, but it remains to be seen if they would step in to prevent the Phoenix from being undermined. The stand-off could also damage Australia’s bids for the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, with fellow Asian nations – Qatar, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia – also in the running.

From WSC 277 March 2010