New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert has plenty of reasons to celebrate at the moment. A third OFC Nations Cup in the bag? Check. A place at next year's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa? Check. Not to mention the fact that they have booked a playoff with the fifth-placed Asian nation for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. But there is more: they have rocketed 57 places up the October FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, to 54th.
Herbert could not hide his pride in his charges' achievement. "It adds a quality profile to the team, and in that respect it's a timely rise given the draw for the FIFA Confederations Cup is on 22 November," he commented.
Despite their spectacular climb, 54th is not the All Whites' all-time highest position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The golden period for the Kiwis was late 2002, when their victory over Australia in the OFC Nations Cup in July of that year, thanks to a late Ryan Nelsen goal, sent them soaring to 47th. However, Australia's subsequent move to the Asian Football Confederation has meant that the Kiwis have had fewer chances to test themselves against higher-ranked opposition. "We may be seen as ideal opposition through Asia now, especially given the World Cup playoff coming up next year," observed Herbert.
Central to the New Zealanders' success has been the continuing goalscoring prowess of Wellington Phoenix's Shane Smeltz. Since returning to Oceania from England in 2007, Smeltz has established himself as one of the most dangerous strikers in the Australian A-League. And he has carried his form into the international arena, scoring, remarkably, in every single one of New Zealand's qualifying games.
He has racked up eight goals in total, including the two crucial strikes against New Caledonia in Noumea that ensured the All Whites' progress to both the Confederations Cup and the playoff for the FIFA World Cup. Smeltz certainly showed his commitment to the Kiwi cause on that occasion: he missed the birth of his daughter to help New Zealand over the line in Noumea!
New Zealand won the return game as well, 3-0, and once again Smeltz was on the scoresheet twice. His partnership with indestructible veteran Vaughan Coveny up front at club level has been a particular boon for the All Whites, who feature many other players from Wellington Phoenix, the country's only professional club.
", and I'm honoured and privileged to have been given the opportunities I have in Wellington," said Smeltz recently. "I love it here. The Phoenix is a great club and Wellington is a great city to live and work in."
New Zealand's rise in the rankings is well-timed, as they prepare to welcome the world once more to an international football event. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup kicks off in the Oceania nation in late October, and New Zealand's recent fine results at senior international level will certainly give the host nation some extra incentive to excel at the first-ever instalment of this tournament.
I'm playing the best football of my career
It has been a memorable year for New Zealand football. Both their Men's and Women's Olympic teams made it to the finals in Beijing, they are shortly to host a FIFA tournament, and their senior team has piled achievement upon impressive achievement. Their Confederations Cup opposition, and Asia's fifth-placed side, will know that this Kiwi generation is not to be taken lightly.