When Auckland City open their FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009 campaign against host nation representatives Al Ahli next month, it will be another remarkable step in the career of Ivan Vicelich. The 32-year-old decided to call time on his professional football life in the Netherlands last year with a view to spending more time with family and getting back to the club that gave him his start as a junior.
Despite a lengthy international career that had included a vital goal against Fiji during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, Vicelich took the decision to retire from New Zealand duty before the end of the campaign. Everything was scaled back with the exception of playing for Auckland City in the New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC) and OFC O-League League.
However, in mid-2009, national team coach Ricki Herbert, suffering with an injury crises that included All Whites skipper Ryan Nelsen, persuaded the lanky defender to temporarily come out of retirement. Vicelich enjoyed his 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup experience so much that he decided to make his reinstatement permanent.
The national team felt the immediate benefit, and Vicelich played an integral role in New Zealand’s historic qualification for South Africa 2010. Alongside Nelsen at the heart of the All Whites defence, the Auckland City stalwart helped keep Bahrain scoreless over two legs as the Kiwis defeated Asia’s fifth-ranked team 1-0 on aggregate to reach their first FIFA World Cup for 28 years.
"Now we're in the World Cup, it all seems to be a pathway, like it's meant to be,” said Vicelich of this recent transformation in his fortunes. “It's a dream come true for me. I'm pretty happy with the way the career has gone and this is the icing on the cake near the end."
Vicelich is now in the midst of arguably the most exciting period of his glittering career and will continue his international treble of FIFA tournaments when Auckland City travel to Abu Dhabi for the FIFA Club World Cup and a possible meeting with European champions Barcelona or South American representatives Estudiantes.
“We’re coming up against opponents that play at a high tempo constantly but we’ll be better prepared this time,” said Vicelich, referencing the club’s last appearance in the same competition three years ago. “We’ve got a stronger squad than when we qualified three years ago. We’re looking good, we’ve got some good results in the domestic and regional competitions.”
Vicelich says Auckland City’s amateur status need not be a disadvantage. Aside from the experience provided by former South Africa international strikers Grant Young and Keryn Jordan, the Oceania heavyweights can call on ex-Korea Republic international Ki-Hyung Lee. “We’ve got some good players with professional experience, so we won’t be going into the tournament overawed,” said Vicelich. “Ki has played in an Olympic Games and throughout Asia and Korea so he is a valuable player for us. But we’ve got a better balance throughout the squad - we’ve also got some good young players coming through too.”
Morale couldn’t be higher as New Zealand football enjoys one of its brightest periods since those heady days of 1982, and Vicelich believes that the standard of the domestic competition is beginning to show signs of improvement. “The NZFC domestic competition is doing a good job and I think we’re starting to see it bear fruit with the New Zealand U-17 team making it through to the Round of 16 at their age-group World Cup,” he said.
“Clubs are preparing better each year and now we’ve got to play our part in Abu Dhabi. I’m expecting another great tournament. I was in South Africa for the Confederations Cup – its great being inside that FIFA environment, playing quality opposition, to play on the world stage and we’ve earned the right to be there. But we must perform credibly.”