New Zealand's South African school
Arguably no other New Zealander in the world wants his country to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ more than Ricki Herbert. The All Whites coach knows exactly what qualifying for world football's showpiece events means, given that he was an integral part of the pioneering squad that played at Spain 1982. Twenty-seven years on, he finds himself attempting to mastermind their progression to the competition once more, with only Bahrain or Saudi Arabia and a two legged play-off standing in their way.
The FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 has taught Herbert and his charges a number of key lessons ahead of those crucial matches, which they also hope to take into next year's tournament. In a candid interview with FIFA.com, the 48-year-old acknowledged his mistakes, assessed his team's responses to the challenges they faced and explained why they are travelling home as a contented crew.
Just four days ahead their opening match against Spain, New Zealand took the lead three times against Italy, before eventually losing 4-3. Although Herbert welcomed the friendly with the world champions, with hindsight he felt that it contributed to the 5-0 defeat to Spain in their opening game in Rustenburg.
"It made things a little more difficult going into the tournament because we played exceptionally well in that match and consequently it made the Spain game even more difficult for us," he told FIFA.com. "They are probably the best side I've seen and they're in an absolutely rich vein of form at the moment. I think we got them at their best and to be fair their performance in the opening 30 minutes would have been enough to take apart any team."
A significant number of the New Zealand squad last played competitive football in January, a full five and a half months before the FIFA Confederations Cup began. After going from a famine to a feast of international football against two of the best sides in world football, Herbert believed that this contributed to the lacklustre performance against the hosts, which they lost 2-0.
"I think it's pretty clear now where we went wrong," he continued. "The Spain game came very quickly after the Italy one and the players were pretty drained. I didn't have the intention of changing the team too much during the tournament given that we don't get a lot of time together and it's important for them to connect. So we went for a similar line-up against South Africa and we just weren't able to get around the pitch effectively."
With the players' fitness levels draining, the backroom staff adopted a 'less is more' approach with the squad, even taking them on safari in order to refresh their minds and bodies ahead of the final group game with Iraq. To the All Whites' delight, they dominated the 0-0 draw with Iraq and secured New Zealand's first point at a senior men's FIFA finals in the process.
"The key was taking their minds away from football," confessed Herbert. "We trained extremely lightly. We had a walkover on Ellis Park and then we did a 45-minute free session where the players could do whatever they liked to show that they were ready. I don't often do this but I delayed naming the team the day until the day of the game.
"We named the starting 11 initially and then collectively shared our thoughts on our performances to date and we were very honest with each other. Sometimes in your managerial career you can sense things, and there was a general feeling among the staff that the players were ready and so we weren't really surprised by the performance."
Now the New Zealand squad are embarking on the 26-hour journey home, generally satisfied by their showing at South Africa 2009. Their next quest is to return back next year - and with the lessons learned this time around, Herbert is hopeful and quietly optimistic.
"We came here with the intentions of making history and we've managed to achieve that," he smiled. "We've finished on an incredibly good note, not only from the point of view of the credibility we've taken from the tournament but for the confidence it gives us going into the World Cup play-offs. The whole experience has been great, the people have great, it's been fantastic and we've been looked after really well.
"If we could grade our experience in South Africa, we'd give it ten out of ten for hospitality, support and security. The hotels, training facilities, food, transport and all the important things have been great, and we'd love the opportunity to return here next year."