Ten months after winning the Oceania qualifying zone, New Zealand now know which team stands between them and a first appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ in 28 years. Last week's drama-charged away-goals win for Bahrain against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh finally confirming the play-off candidate from Asia. The end of the long wait means the All Whites under astute coach Ricki Herbert can now finally start planning with clarity.
A veteran and key member of the New Zealand side that shocked onlookers by reaching Spain 1982, Herbert knows better than most what it will take to get the All Whites over the line this time around. A cultured full-back, Herbert played 61 times for the Kiwis including all 15 qualifying games, and, although only 21 at the time, he also featured in all three matches at Spain 1982.
Despite having the reins of the national team since 2005, Herbert splits his coaching duties between the All Whites and Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand's only professional club who play in the Australian A-League.
Spirit of '82
In New Zealand's finest football moment to date, the All Whites battled through a then-record 15 matches to reach their goal the hard way. Despite the members of the current Kiwis squad plying their trade across many parts of the globe, Herbert feels the spirit within the group is reminiscent of that previous success.
"The hardest thing now is that players are all around the world, back then we had one or two in Australia so to bring the group together was easy so the time together was far greater," Herbert told FIFA.com. "What we face now is difficult, and its tough to get the players together but I think there is a synergy around. It's a strong tight group, it's very dedicated, very passionate and those strengths were very evident in 82 as well."
Preparing for success
The New Zealanders, hamstrung as they are by geography, have only had limited opportunities to play international fixtures, a fact also true in this, their most important of years. The All Whites only taking the field on eight occasions this year with Bahrain playing more than double that amount. The Bahrainis under wily Czech coach Milan Macala, can also fall back on the experience of playing against the likes of Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in their qualifying campaign to date.
The All Whites will have the benefit of hosting the second leg at home in November, with the first leg to be played in Manama on 10 October. The Kiwis last week played their first match since the FIFA Confederations Cup recording a 3-1 win in Jordan. Despite the paucity of matches Herbert stated that the result in Amman and the experience gained was invaluable.
Currently New Zealand have a full complement of players available with strikers Chris Wood and Chris Killen back to full fitness after missing the outing against Jordan. But perhaps providing most comfort to Herbert is the availability of long-serving captain and defensive cornerstone Ryan Nelsen. The Blackburn-based central-defender missed June's FIFA Confederations Cup because of a calf injury but is now back among the first-team fray at Ewood Park.
Undoubtedly November's outing is the most important football match to be played on New Zealand soil, with Hebert saying the home crowd will potentially be pivotal to success describing the crowd support in Wellington as "their 12th man". The qualification for Spain 1982 was achieved on foreign fields but Herbert will be hoping the spirit of those heady days can spur the All Whites to a new chapter of achievement.