New Zealand football’s new look is set to continue at this month’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in more ways than one. The game in the ‘Land of the long white cloud’ has undergone a mini revolution of sorts in recent years, with international achievement across a number of fronts crowned by last year’s revelatory performance by the All Whites at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
The new found success on the world stage kicked-off at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria as the Young All Whites became the first New Zealand team to progress to the knockout phase of a FIFA tournament. But it is not just the results that are changing. The number of Maori and Pacific Islander participants taking up the game in New Zealand has increased dramatically in recent years, and that has been reflected in the playing personnel of the squads for both Nigeria 2009 and Mexico 2011.
New Zealand’s new complexion
Two years ago the Young All Whites had half a dozen members with an indigenous background, and the squad which departed New Zealand yesterday bound for Mexico has a similar make-up. Among them are Bill Tuiloma and Cameron Howieson, both of Samoan background; Harley Tahau and Rhys Lambert of Maori extraction, while Ken Yamamoto boasts Japanese parentage.
It is a quantum leap in a nation where football has traditionally been an Anglo preserve. And it is digression that is all the more likely to continue given the role-model status of four members of New Zealand’s South Africa 2010 squad - Rory Fallon, Leo Bertos, Jeremy Christie and Winston Reid – all of whom possess Maori bloodlines.
A number of the Mexico 2011 squad, like that which went to Nigeria two years ago, have spent time at the Auckland-based academy run by Wynton Rufer. The legendary New Zealand forward and Oceania Player of the Century says he deliberately sought to be as inclusive as possible and the result has paid off. “There are a lot of Pacific Islander and Maori kids playing the game now, and that is partly who we are specifically targeting,” said Rufer. "They are often the ones who are the most talented.”
New Zealand Football’s Director of Football Development John Herdman says new programmes are likely to encourage an even greater cross-section of society to the world game and away from the national sport of rugby. “Our new schools programme has a target of engaging children outside of the typical participation base, which is typically a white middle-class socio-economic group,” said Herdman. “We traditionally have a massive uptake of rugby among New Zealand’s Polynesian and Melanesian cultures, which means there is an outstanding sporting gene pool going [elsewhere].”
The class of 2011 are, however, faced with a tough challenge if they are to repeat the success of Nigeria 2009. The Young All Whites have been drawn in Group D of the 24-nation tournament alongside USA, Czech Republic and Uzbekistan.
New Zealand showed both organisation and defensive resilience during their qualifying campaign, conceding just one goal en route to achieving their goal. Coach Aaron McFarland believes the current crop are experienced for their age, having also benefited from a live-in programme. “They are an ambitious group and among them they are some relatively seasoned campaigners for 16 and 17-year-olds,” said McFarland. “We’ve got a good core of players who have played in the ASB Premiership [national league] so there’s probably a bigger group with exposure at that level than we’ve had in the past.”
McFarland clearly believes the against-the-odds spirit for which New Zealand have become famous during the last few years is alive and well amid the current crop. "I’ve told this lot they need to make the last eight. I think we can do it," he says.