Key New Zealand striker Shane Smeltz harbours ambitions of qualifying for the knockout stage at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ despite the Kiwis being considered underdogs in the eyes of many. If the All Whites are to make history, it is likely that in-form goal-getter Smeltz will play a pivotal role.
After a slow start to his career Smeltz has hit rare form in recent years, with a brace against Wales in a 2007 international friendly seemingly the watershed for both his club and national team career. There followed three prolific seasons in which the forward was top scorer for his club in each campaign, picking up the golden boot in the Australian A-League on two of those occasions.
The productive form continued unabated with the All Whites, as Smeltz collected successive Oceania Player of the Year titles over the last two years, as well as being named New Zealand Footballer of the Year. He scored an impressive eight goals in five South Africa 2010 qualifiers in Oceania, which helped equal a 30-year-old national team record of scoring in six internationals in a row.
Having ended a 28-year wait to reach the world’s greatest football stage, Smeltz - born in Germany to an American father and British mother - and his colleagues are eager to make the most of the opportunity, refusing to be daunted by the rarefied atmosphere that will be South Africa 2010. The New Zealanders have been drawn into Group F alongside world champions Italy, hard-nosed South American qualifiers Paraguay and European hopefuls Slovakia.
“We certainly could have drawn a harder group, but of course there are no easy games in the World Cup,” Smeltz told FIFA.com. “Everyone will be fighting to get into the second round and we have the same ambition even though we will probably be written off by many before we get there. It will be three massive games for us and everyone is really looking forward to it.”
“We played against Italy in the lead up to the Confederations Cup [South Africa 2009] and I scored against then,” says Smeltz of a 4-3 loss against the Azzurri last year. “We put on a good show and though we lost we take some confidence from that. We will certainly not be daunted playing against Slovakia, Paraguay and even Italy.”
Despite the ambitions, the New Zealanders will go to South Africa at a significant disadvantage with a number of their key players concluding their A-League season in March. Smeltz, who plays for Gold Coast United, and Wellington Phoenix players such as Leo Bertos, Tim Brown and Tony Lochhead have been forced to train with a second-tier club in Australia to maintain their fitness.
Changing of the guard
New Zealand’s epic qualification playoff victory over Bahrain last November sparked massive football interest in the rugby-mad nation. That match drew a national record crowd, with Wellington Phoenix subsequently enjoying unprecedented success on the field, and likewise attracting equally impressive crowds.
“I’m a player that loves the game and there is nothing better than to see young children playing football in a country, where in the past the majority would have been playing Rugby or other sports,” says the 28-year-old. “Now with football on the rise, and certainly now going to the World Cup, the profile has lifted in a major way and its great to see the buzz around the country.”
With the exception of captain Ryan Nelsen, Smeltz is as well-known as any of his contemporaries given his form of recent years, but a goal or two at South Africa 2010 would take that prominence to a new level. “It would be a dream to score in a World Cup and hopefully get the right result for my country as well."