New Zealand may have missed out on the knockout stages at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, but no one can deny that the All Whites left their mark on the tournament - particularly since they didn't lose a single match.
Though still a group-stage exit, for a small country which has no real football heritage to speak of, should it be considered an honourable appearance? Probably, yes, but the New Zealand Football Association is aiming much higher. It considers South Africa 2010 a turning point, triggering a significant change in the goals of its national teams. They are hoping that change in mentality will be put into practice in the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013, starting on Wednesday, when New Zealand face Uruguay.
“Now we have a development programme in place for children from five years of age, in the clubs," coach Darren Bazeley explained to FIFA.com. "Afterwards, the national centres can recruit them when they turn 13. This is when they start to be identified and brought together to train alongside one another. The plan is to get them playing from a young age, but playing the right way, passing the ball and moving around the pitch, improving their technical skills.”
According to the New Zealand FA, football is now the number-one sport in terms of the number of people playing it, although rugby remains more popular. “We’ve always been good at rugby,” admits Bazeley.
In the game with the oval ball, players' physical conditioning and strength are essential factors. And in football these two aspects are also very important, of course, and go a long way to explaining how New Zealand performed in South Africa - their approach based around a strong, combative defence. The idea is not to completely discard these characteristics, but to add others that make the country’s football more competitive, and perhaps more attractive. “In the past our players were known as strong and aggressive. We are trying to develop them now so that as well as retaining their physical attributes, they have more strings to their bow,” says Bazeley.
Bazeley was born in England where he enjoyed a ten-year playing career at Watford, and three more seasons at Wolverhampton Wanderers, before emigrating to Oceania. There, things were very different. “It’s difficult in New Zealand, with only one professional club,” he said, while pointing out that “the football culture is growing here.” This makes the FA’s activity at grass roots level essential in order to enhance the popularity of the game, with more kids playing now as part of an organised programme.
The current U-17 generation of New Zealand players may have missed out on the start of this process but, even so, Bazeley looks upon this crop with great optimism. “This squad contains very good players. I feel we are better now, and this is the result of the amount of football they have played in recent years.”
Although optimistic, he refutes the idea that there is added pressure to perform. Even upon arriving at their Group B base, Ras Al Khaimah, the New Zealanders have not lost sight of the long-term targets, which require patience. “It’s great that the U-17 team are competing in the World Cup, but they are still developing," said the supremo. "It’s another step in the project to create players with the ability to make an impact in the future, and who can be useful to the senior team.”
Among the players in the U-17 World Cup squad, midfielder Alex Rufer, nephew of legendary former international Wynton Rufer, is the first to have signed a contract, with Wellington Phoenix, the country’s only professional club. But others are getting there, and not only to join Rufer in the A-League. Two players are in talks with English clubs. Forwards Judd Baker and Monty Patterson are on the radar of Swansea City and Ipswich Town respectively.
“I hope that in the coming years they will be playing in top leagues, with good coaches and making progress," said Bazeley, bringing the interview to an end. "That way they can perform for New Zealand and help turn the national team into a really great side.”