For Andy Barron, 15 November 2009 was just another day at the office. His colleagues, however, couldn’t help but notice that there was something a little different about him. After all, it wasn’t every day that Barron turned up for work with a TV crew following close behind.
Then again, this was the morning after the night before, and what a night it had been, with the New Zealand midfielder helping his country qualify for their first FIFA World Cup™ in 28 years. Yet if the staff at the Wellington bank at which he worked were taken aback, it can hardly be considered surprising - especially as they had no idea there was an international footballer in their midst. Barron, it transpired, had declined to inform them.
As the midfielder, recounting his remarkable story to FIFA.com, explained: “I tried to keep it under the radar to be honest. It’s not like I wasn’t proud of playing for my country, but I’m also not the kind of guy to go about bragging or making a big deal about it. That said, the idea of keeping it quiet kind of went out of the window when the TV crew followed me in that day!
“I can understand it might seem pretty unusual, people not knowing I was an international footballer, but that’s the way things are in New Zealand. We’re a pretty laidback country and it didn’t bother me one bit that people didn’t realise I was an All White. It’s just the way it is - it’s not like in, say, England, where footballers are big celebrities.”
Naturally, Barron’s situation exemplified perfectly the scale of New Zealand’s achievement in drawing with the world champions on Sunday. Like the rest of his team-mates, the midfielder simply refused to be overawed by an Italy side packed with millionaire superstars such as former FIFA World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro.
“It’s the beauty of football, isn’t it?” reflected the beaming 30-year-old, whose day job involves investing clients’ money in stocks, bonds and managed funds. In fact, while New Zealand have proved that they have not come to South Africa for a holiday, Barron himself has done just that, having used up his entire allocation of annual leave – and more – to compete at the FIFA World Cup. Even here, with his smartphone a constant companion, he spends time in between matches and training sessions keeping an eye on clients’ portfolios, and admits he’s already preparing to return to the office.
“Oh yeah, I’ll be slotting straight back in,” he said. “The bank have been good enough to give me six weeks off for this tournament and, if we keep going the way we have been, I might need to ask them for a bit more! Thankfully they’re pretty understanding, and I certainly don’t think anyone back home will be complaining if we manage to get through.”
Remarkably, qualification is now a genuine possibility for a New Zealand side who have confounded sneering pre-tournament predictions by emerging unbeaten from their opening two matches. For Barron, a point has been emphatically proved.
As he said: “No-one will believe we’re in this position because no-one gave us a prayer of doing anything. Within the squad though, we knew we weren’t coming here to lose all three games. We’d played well coming into the tournament, and winning friendlies the likes of Serbia gave us all a lot of confidence. We knew that we were a decent team, and I think we’ve enjoyed proving that to everyone. Our view was: ‘Let the pundits write us off.’ We’ve a tight-knit group and we had a feeling we could achieve something.”
Winning a first-ever FIFA World Cup point and then drawing with the holders represents more than merely ‘something’, and the impact of the All Whites’ achievements looks set to be felt long after the curtain comes down on this competition. Indeed, there is a genuine hope that, just as the Socceroos’ success at Germany 2006 heralded a new era for Australian football, so South Africa 2010 can transform the sporting landscape of New Zealand.
“Absolutely. Why not?” was Barron’s view. “The last World Cup was huge for Australia and I’ve no doubts that what we’re doing out here is getting people fired up back home. I’m not saying things will change overnight but the future for football in our country looks really bright.”
So bright, in fact, that Barron’s colleagues might just be aware of what he’s currently doing with his spare time.