World Cup 2010 profile – New Zealand – Kiwis out to make history

New Zealand’s qualification for the forthcoming World Cup was a triumph for a small nation where football is not the dominant sport. The Oceania country has a population of just over 4m people, for whom Rugby Union and cricket are far more popular pastimes – although their interest in football is growing.

Funding for the development of the game on the Gold Coast is limited as the national association – New Zealand Football – look at “optimising scarce resources across the game” as part of a strategic plan for 2009 to 2011. This too is in its early stages but the document sets out the Kiwis’ intention to strengthen football at all levels. The plan outlines hopes to deliver a “national funding strategy” which will see sponsorship funding and “total government funding” each “increased to £675 000 a year by 2012.”

The country’s domestic league – the five-year-old New Zealand Football Championship – is in its infancy and is semi-professional. The winners play in the O-League – the Oceania equivalent of the Champions League – which New Zealand clubs have dominated since its recent inception. New Zealand’s sole full-time professional club, Wellington Phoenix, compete in the Australian A-League and currently do not represent New Zealand in the O-League. It is little surprise given the domestic league and lack of funding that the ‘All Whites’ have few star-name exports and only a small pool of players to call upon. The majority of their squad play for clubs in the Australian A-League – with 25 per cent playing for Wellington.

Prior to South Africa 2010, the Kiwis have only once appeared in a World Cup . They qualified for Spain ’82, but lost every game in the Group Stage – to Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil respectively. Despite losing 5-2 they gave the Scots a scare in their opening game when clawing the score back from 3-0 to 3-2. The goals from Steve Sumner and Steve Wooddin remain the only goals they have ever scored on such a stage. The record is a modest milestone for the current squad to surpass, but in a group containing reigning champions Italy, along with Paraguay and Slovakia, doing so would be quite a feat. Realistically, bettering their previous goals record is the best they can hope to achieve in South Africa.

Blackburn defender Ryan Nelsen and Middlesbrough striker Chris Killen are New Zealand’s star players. Nelsen has a wealth of Premier League experience having spent nearly five years at Ewood Park. An imposing and physical centre-back, his dogged determination and leadership qualities have earned him the captaincy of both club and country, as well as impressing many media pundits. Killen moved from Scottish giants Celtic to Championship side Middlesbrough in January, searching for regular football. His key strengths are his height, the ability to hold the ball up to lay it off and work-rate, all which will be vital to the Kiwis’ attacking play.

The Head Coach, who guided the nation to South Africa, is 48-year-old Ricki Herbert – briefly with Wolves in the 1980’s and a member of the New Zealand World Cup squad in 1982. Herbert doubles up as manager of Wellington Phoenix in the Australian A-League working with a large number of his international squad on a day-to-day basis at club level. Herbert became national team manager in 2005 on the strength of managerial success with domestic teams and the All Whites’ age-group squads. Seen as calm, intelligent and not one to court the media, he favours a well-organised and physical approach to the game – which is making the most of what is available. He favours a 4-4-1-1 formation but has been known to switch to 3-4-3, most notably for New Zealand’s World Cup play-off against Bahrain. The All-Whites – ranked 78th by FIFA – faced Bahrain over two legs having negotiated first place in the Oceania qualifying group, after New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu did not prove testing. The first leg in Bahrain saw the Kiwi’s come away with a 0-0 draw, while in the second leg, on home turf, a Rory Fallon goal and a penalty save from goalkeeper Mark Paston was enough to see them through.

Despite North Harbour Stadium being named as the address of the country’s football governing body, the All Whites have more recently played at the larger multi-purpose Westpac Stadium – home of Wellington Phoenix. The attendance for the home leg of their qualifying play-off against Bahrain was close to its capacity of 36 000. Like many teams at the forthcoming World Cup, the Kiwis will have to adapt to playing some games at a higher altitude than usual. If they can hurdle that obstacle, they have every chance of bettering their previous modest showing.

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