Few coaches in world football can have enjoyed so many unexpected highs over the past 12 months as New Zealand and Wellington Phoenix mentor Ricki Hebert. Qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ on a memorable night in Wellington last November, in a front of a record national football crowd, ended an agonising 28-year wait for the All Whites to appear on the world stage.
Herbert, a veteran of New Zealand’s showing at the 1982 FIFA World Cup, knew his team were capable of surprising the world and the Kiwis didn’t disappoint in South Africa. New Zealand remained unbeaten across their three group matches against Slovakia, 2006 world champions Italy and quarter-finalists Paraguay. Though the three draws meant elimination, the achievements of Herbert’s All Whites will surely go down as a defining moment in New Zealand football history.
Just prior to South Africa 2010, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers man took his Wellington side into the play-offs of the Australian A-League – the first New Zealand club to achieve such a feat. The Phoenix ultimately fell one match short of the championship decider but record domestic crowds were a testament to the team’s success.
Three key achievements in New Zealand football and former tough-tackling defender Ricki Herbert has been a common thread in each. FIFA.com spoke with the Auckland-born Herbert about the All Whites achievements at South Africa 2010, whether they can build on that success and his thoughts on Wellington Phoenix maintaining their momentum on the domestic front.
FIFA.com: Has it sunk it yet what you achieved at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, being undefeated and the only team to do so?
Ricki Herbert: I think so, but it is a really proud achievement for the country and no one can ever take away that. I think globally it has put New Zealand firmly on the map. I think that is what has excited the public back home, and not just the sporting people, that a team has gone and exposed New Zealand in a very positive way.
Do you think that you can build on this success which perhaps wasn’t the case after the 1982 FIFA World Cup?
That is part of the reason that I am staying. Not only me but I think there are a lot of integral people that need to continue on. If we make another World Cup in four years, then great. If we don’t then I think the profile is not just going to disappear and we are pushing pretty hard to make sure that it doesn’t.
What are some of the major positives in modern New Zealand football that can be built on following the 2010 FIFA World Cup as opposed to the situation following Spain 1982?
Grassroots has always been there. For me it is we have a really competitive and progressive professional team. The national team needs to come out and play again soon, the Phoenix will be on deck shortly, so that interest, momentum and fan base stays there, whereas in 82 it all disappeared.
There is a lot belief there (within the team). We are not saying we are going to beat them all but there is a real confidence that we can step on the pitch and do something.
Are you optimistic for the All Whites’ performances in the future given there may be a couple of retirements?
Yes I am. I think we are in a very stable position. I would that 75 per cent of the team at least, will be there for the next World Cup.
Is there some young talent coming through from the national youth ranks?
There are some boys coming through. I wouldn’t say we have great depth but I think the national team will be fine for the next four years at least.
Is there one highlight from South Africa 2010 that stands out for you?
Scoring with 30 seconds to go against Slovakia kind of started the whole campaign for us. To draw against the Italians was obviously a great result for us. I think to be the only team unbeaten is a milestone that will always be there and no one can take that away.
Did you get any feedback from the players about adapting to the standard at the FIFA World Cup?
I think over the last four years we have pitted that team against a lot of big countries including some of the best countries from across the world. There is a lot belief there. We are not saying we are going to beat them all but there is a real confidence that we can step on the pitch and do something.
Moving onto your role as Wellington Phoenix coach... Has the preparation for the upcoming A-League season been hindered by a number of the players’ involvement in the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
We have rested some of the national team players. Most of them played against Boca Juniors (in a recent friendly) to test them physiologically and competition wise to see where they were at and if that was the benchmark then I am pretty happy. There was always going to be a disruption.
Are you optimistic of keeping the momentum going from last season’s record achievements?
This year will be interesting as I think the demands will be a lot more and with more travel for us. I’m sure we can be in the finals again.
Has this year felt different as a result of New Zealand’s achievements at South Africa 2010?
It has been massive at home, it has been incredible. A few weeks ago we had 10,000 people in Hamilton against Brisbane (for a friendly). Across the country everyone wants the Phoenix to play there now.