New Zealand will commence their preparations for the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 later this month with two matches in Thailand. A near-full strength Kiwi side set to take the field for the meeting with Thailand on 28 March before facing a 'Thailand A' select three days later.
Ricki Herbert's men secured qualification for the June tournament by virtue of winning Oceania's qualifying section for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ last September. The All Whites have not played an international match with their full squad since that match against New Caledonia, which also guaranteed their participation in a play-off later this year against an Asian opponent for a berth at South Africa 2010.
The New Zealanders are sure to be strongly tested by a Thai outfit that, under the leadership of former England international Peter Reid, have impressed this year by earning scoreless draws in Jordan and then at home to Iran in their 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign. Since finishing runners up in the South East Asian showpiece, the Suzuki Cup, last December, the Thais have also beaten Lebanon and lost narrowly to Saudi Arabia in friendly international fixtures.
All Whites on the march
Yet there is no doubt that New Zealand are a team on the up. The All Whites results have improved markedly under the tutelage of Herbert, following a disappointing period earlier in the decade that saw them dumped out of the Germany 2006 qualifying competition by the Solomon Islands.
A representative for the All Whites during their lone FIFA World Cup appearance Spain 1982, Herbert, who also doubles as coach of Wellington Phoenix in the Australian A-League, has helped turn around the national team's fortunes. The Kiwis won five straight FIFA World Cup qualifiers last year in impressive fashion before suffering a 2-0 reversal against Fiji in their final match, for which a number of regular players were absent.
The New Zealanders have only played nine times since the commencement of 2007 but under Herbert, have moved as high as 54 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, narrowly short of the nations all-time high achieved seven years ago. The New Zealanders are hoping to confirm more matches prior to their FIFA Confederations Cup meetings with Spain, Iraq and hosts South Africa in June.
All White for Thai challenge
The tyranny of distance has sometimes prevented Herbert from having his best players available but the match in Bangkok will see the Kiwis' finest on display, including Blackburn Rovers defensive stalwart and national team captain Ryan Nelsen, plus in-form striker Shane Smeltz. Other key members of the squad, Celtic striker Chris Killen and experienced USA-based midfielder Simon Elliott, will also be available. The only notable absentees are Wellington Phoenix duo Ben Sigmund and Leo Bertos, both of whom are unavailable due to off-season surgery.
On the downside for Herbert is the fact that up to a dozen players have not been playing regular football recently with the Australian A-League and United States MLS competitions in their respective off-seasons. "It'll be good to get 2009 underway," says Herbert. "Thailand have recently drawn with Iran, so the game gives us a good cross section of where we need to be."
A successful outing in South Africa in June would undoubtedly give the players a significant boost for their FIFA World Cup play-off against the fifth-best Asian nation later this year. With Herbert astutely leading the team, Kiwi supporters will be quietly confident that 2009 will prove a year to remember.