The last time FIFA.com spoke to Ricki Herbert he had just watched his side beaten 5-0 by Blackburn Rovers. Since then, football in the country has shown signs of improvement. Both the U-17 and U-20 sides qualified for the 2007 FIFA World Cups at their respective age ranges, the women's side were one of the 16 teams to participate at China 2007 and in the national side's latest outing they held a Wales team including Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy to a 2-2 draw.
Herbert is quietly satisfied about the progression that the beautiful game is making in his country. He points out with pride that it's the most popular sport among young people of either sex and is hoping that he can lead the All Whites to a FIFA World Cup™ himself.
He was just 21 years old when John Adshead gave him the nod to represent the Kiwis during Spain 1982 and in 30 months time, he is desperate to give the chance to 23 of the nation's footballers.
FIFA.com: Ricki, 14 months on from our last interview - do
you feel confident that football in New Zealand has made the
progress you expected as you target a place in South Africa 2010?
Ricki Herbert: I think we have. The organisation has allowed us to play a variety of countries and clubs, who participate at a really high level. The experiences have been invaluable for this group of players: at times our performances have been variable, but in the long-term, I think they will stand us in good stead. I just hope we can use them to good effect in the OFC Nations Cup.
The draw in Wales must have given everyone a tremendous
It did. People in New Zealand can relate to players such as Giggs and Bellamy. They not only know that they're good footballers, but they also know who they play for. But the commitment, effort and passion that we showed in that friendly match has got to be emulated in our forthcoming games. That's something which we'll be focussing on in the next 36 hours.
What were the positive aspects for you from the U-20 and
U-17 teams' showings during the World Cups in Canada and Korea?
They were wonderful experiences. When you're positioned where we are in the world, it's difficult to get our young players abroad and involved in that type of environment, where the competition is very strong and the world's best players are involved. Whilst some of the scores were relatively high against our teams, hopefully in the future we'll be more competitive.
Turning to yourself, how are you finding combining the role
as coach Wellington Phoenix and with the All Whites?
From a personal point of view, the All Whites is very much a part-time position, I think it always has been, I think it probably always will be. To be actively involved in a new, ambitious, progressive and professional A-League club has been excellent for me and whilst I've been able to bring in some national team players at that club, just the daily decision-making has been vital for me. It hasn't been hard to combine the roles at all.
You've got five Phoenix players in the squad. Do you
think that will give the national team an advantage as you approach
I hope so. While they're involved in two completely different environments, the style of football has some resemblance. But the good thing for me as a coach is that I know exactly where those players are at in terms of fitness, form and confidence. Twelve months ago some of those players didn't have a football club. They weren't playing regularly, they were chasing contracts and they weren't at the physical standard required to play international football. It's great to see where they are now.
As well as with the Phoenix, the number of players at your
disposal who are playing in some of the world's top leagues
seems to be growing. How important is that for you?
It's crucial. While it has it's obvious difficulties in terms of geography, it's great for football in New Zealand. Chris Killen [who plays for Celtic] has just joined us over the past 24 hours and the media interest in him has been outstanding. A couple of our U-20 and U-17 players have been given trials at clubs abroad - and that's served to whet the appetite of the mainstream media who perhaps haven't seen football as newsworthy.
Were you able to watch any of the South Pacific Games in
Brian Turner, the assistant coach for the national team went across and watched the semi-finals and finals. He was very complimentary about the teams involved, which was a reflection of the hard work and they, together with FIFA, have put in over the past few years. Of course, they have the bonus of having their players together for long periods of time, which helps enormously.
In what ways can you see the island teams developing?
Fifteen years ago, we would have expected to beat the island teams by upwards of ten goals, but not too long ago the Australians went to the Solomon Islands and only won 2-1, with almost a full complement of their big names. It's not easy anymore. While people will see us as favourites, we're going to be respectful of the teams we face.
What do you see as being Fiji's biggest strengths?
They are very well organised, very strong in terms of character and passion and we know that if we don't match them in these areas, we will make life difficult for ourselves. They are quite a direct team and they have the ability to hit you on the counter attack. We've been working to nullify their strengths, as well as impose our own style of play on the game.
Every team in the OFC Nations Cup will be wanting to beat
New Zealand. Is it hard being the favourites?
It is tough, but we've got to face reality. We're at home, we've got good players with good experience and they expect to win. We have to accept that responsibility and win. If we are going to progress and face the fifth-place Asian team, they will be a much tougher prospect.