Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Sun 7 March 2010

32 For 2010: New Zealand

New Zealand arrive at the 2010 World Cup knowing they’ve already achieved their main objective – to end the long wait for a second appearance at the Finals. If anything, the All Whites can look forward to playing their three group games in South Africa safe in the knowledge that the hard work has already been done.

It’s been 28 long years since New Zealand last qualified for the World Cup. Spain ’82 was the first, and so far only time the Pacific island nation of four million people was represented on the world stage. Now, the seemingly endless wait for another bite at the cherry is over and the team can now get on with the thankless task of being taught a lesson in playing football at the highest level when the action starts in earnest this June.

No-one is expecting much from New Zealand – instead this is a rare chance to pick up some badly needed experience for players and coaching staff alike ahead of further World Cup campaigns to come.

Ironically, many of the men who’ll be wearing the renowned white shirts out on the field in South Africa were born within a year or two of that 1982 appearance in Spain. Many play in the A-League but similarly there are plenty with current or previous experience in Britain and the US. Among the most notable, Chris Killen is a striker who has played all his club football in Britain, most recently at Oldham, Hibernian, Celtic and currently Middlesbrough. Aged 28, he averages around a goal every three games and will be one of the main hopes for supplying goals as far as All Whites fans are concerned.

In defence, a recognisable name will be captain Ryan Nelsen, the experienced Blackburn Rovers centre back who played for DC United before Mark Hughes signed him in 2005. Not only a calming influence in defence, he can also score goals himself from time to time and is as much of a threat as anybody in the side from set-pieces.

During the qualifiers for 2010, Shane Smeltz was the top scorer with eight goals. Born in Germany, Smeltz has had spells with AFC Wimbledon, Mansfield Town and Halifax Town but is currently with Gold Coast United in the A-League. Playing for his country, he averages a goal every two games and, with Killen, could form a dangerous strike partnership.

Those qualifiers of which we speak held little in the way of a serious threat for New Zealand until that infamous Asia/Oceania play-off against Bahrain last November. Receiving a bye in the first round, the second saw them playing home and away against New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu in a round robin group which they ultimately won at a canter.

Notorious for its shallow lack of competing nations of a decent standard, the Oceania qualifying competition is now dominated by New Zealand since Australia’s decision to join the AFC in 2006. In previous World Cup qualifying campaigns, it was almost always Australia that blocked their path to success, as indeed did Israel on occasions thanks to their improbable membership in the OFC and AFC in the 1970’s and 80’s.

New Zealand are no strangers to inter-continental play-offs. When they qualified for the Finals in 1982, their reward for topping a first round group containing Australia was a two-legged tie against China which they won 2-1 in Singapore. Playing in all fifteen of New Zealand’s qualifiers back then was a Mt Wellington defender by the name of Ricki Herbert. Fast forward to their play-off against Bahrain in 2009 and Herbert was still a part of the team – this time as Head Coach where he splits his time with A-League side Wellington Phoenix for whom he’s also Head Coach.

And what an achievement it is that his New Zealand side have finally reached the World Cup again. The second leg of the play-off against Bahrain will go down as one of the most exciting in All Whites history as they not only had to score a potential winning goal but also prevent their Arab opponents from scoring a crucial away goal of their own.

In front of a crowd of more than 35,000 in the Westpac Stadium, Wellington, they took the lead from a headed goal by Plymouth Argyle’s Rory Fallon at the end of the first half. Five minutes into the second half, they conceded a penalty when Tony Lochhead was judged to have fouled Bahrain’s Abdulla Ismaeel Omar but the penalty was duly saved by Mark Paston (playing at his home ground) and the battle was on to defend their fragile 1-0 lead. That they did under severe pressure to the very end was just reward for a team who have long fought for a place at the Finals in the face of worldwide scepticism.

And so the All Whites prepare to do battle against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay this June with a whole new generation of players that will no doubt write their own names into the history books. Whether they, too, will be the last group to reach the Finals for some time remains to be seen.

Even Ricki Herbert acknowledges that New Zealand’s future ought to lie in the Asian Football Confederation in order to strengthen his association’s development. If they do leave behind their neighbours in Oceania, it’s likely they’ll endure the sort of absence from the world stage they suffered after the 1982 World Cup. When they do come back, however, they’ll surely be all the stronger for it, but that’s all in the future.

For now, New Zealand can look forward to proudly taking their place in South Africa less than 100 days from now. All the hard work’s been done... at least for now.

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