The 11-month wait for Oceania champions New Zealand to resume their tilt at qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is almost over. New Zealand arrived in Dubai this week fully prepared for Saturday's first leg encounter with Bahrain in Manama, as All Whites midfielder Tim Brown explained to FIFA.com.
An arduous qualification campaign against all the odds to reach the 1982 FIFA World Cup is New Zealand's only appearance on the world stage to date. Now the All Whites are just two matches from repeating that historic feat with their fate to ultimately be determined in the New Zealand capital of Wellington on 14 November. Led by Ricki Herbert, a respected veteran of Spain 1982, and with the team finding themselves in the rare position of having few injury concerns, New Zealand have a quiet confidence that this could be their time.
While the All Whites have played fewer than half the matches that Milan Macala's Bahrain have done this year, the New Zealanders do have the advantage of their 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup experiences to fall back on. It is point which Brown makes to illustrate the view that the time together has been quality as much as quantity.
"I think we are as ready as we can be," says the 28-year-old Wellington Phoenix man. "Everyone in the squad is playing, and playing well in the A-League and different leagues around the world. We have had quite a few games in preparation, the Confederations Cup was a good lesson as to the level we need to be at, and I think it's a situation of being as well placed as we can be."
Brown, a defensive midfielder has captained his country on numerous occasions during his 25-cap national team career since debuting five years ago. Invariably it has been in the absence of influential defender Ryan Nelsen, who has lightly trained with the squad this week despite missing Blackburn Rover's weekend fixture through injury. Indeed, it was an injury to Nelsen which allowed Brown to don the captain's armband at South Africa 2009.
Brown though is under no illusion about the challenge ahead provided by the team which finished fifth in Asian qualifying for South Africa 2010. "No question they (Bahrain) are a good team, very athletic and quite big which probably negates a little bit our strength at set-pieces. There is no question of the sort of challenge that we face."
Spirit of achievement
The achievements of the 1982 team are always part of the New Zealand football psyche and with the current crop led by Herbert and another hero of the era, assistant coach Brian Turner, it is a constant source of inspiration for Brown and his contemporaries. "It (Spain 1982 qualification) is a little bit the stuff of legend, almost a fairytale, given some of the hurdles they overcame," says Brown.
"It is quite inspiring for us to see what they went through, and we obviously have two coaches in that squad that realise what qualifying for the World Cup is all about. It just goes to show what is possible when you want something bad enough."
By almost every measure November's home leg is the most important football match to be played on New Zealand soil with excitement building down under as Brown attests. "Its fantastic, qualifying for the World Cup is the kind of thing you dream about as a kid, we are only a few games away now so it's a very exciting," he says.
A 3-1 win in Jordan last month will provide the All Whites with hope that they can achieve a positive result in Manama on Saturday. If they do so Brown is hoping to see a New Zealand football attendance record set, which will occur if the stadium capacity of around 35,000 is reached. "It has been Rugby season back home, so that has been the (public) priority, but I think people are realising what a chance we have," states Brown.
"A lot will depend on the first leg in terms of exactly the numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if we sold out the 'Cake Tin' (Wellington Stadium). It could be maybe the biggest game in New Zealand ever."