When Australia, Oceania's powerhouse for so long, left for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, New Zealand were widely expected to become the leading nation in the region.
The Oceania qualifying series for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has done nothing to alter that assessment. New Zealand have gained three wins from their opening three matches in the four-team qualifying group, and look set for a showdown with the fifth-placed Asian team in late 2009.
The campaign has not been without its hiccups, however. Perhaps unsettled by the postponement of their opening home game against Fiji, New Zealand looked less than convincing in a 2-0 win away to the Fijians in Lautoka in October 2007.
In their next game, away to Vanuatu, the All Whites had a real scare. Jean Naprapol put the home side ahead in the first half, and although Wellington Phoenix striker Shane Smeltz levelled the scored early in the second half, it took the Kiwis until the third minute of second-half stoppage time to secure the three points which had seemed a formality. It was substitute David Mulligan's header which saved the favourites' blushes.
"We really struggled to get going in the first forty-five," admitted New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert afterwards. "We got a little bit lucky at the end." He added that the Oceania qualifying group was not going to be the walk-over that some New Zealand pundits had expected. "We certainly won't be taking anybody lightly. We intend to be very respectful."
Buoyed by his late winner in Port Vila, Mulligan went on to score twice more in the return fixture against Vanuatu, which New Zealand won comfortably, 4-1.
Stern next test
The All Whites' next assignment is away to rapidly improving New Caledonia on 6 September. Didier Chambaron's Caledonians have been the surprise team of the campaign, thumping Fiji 4-0 at home, but a frustrating 1-1 draw against Vanuatu in Port Vila on Saturday has made the clash against the Kiwis in Noumea a must-win for them. New Zealand will know that they are not to be underestimated.
New Zealand, who have only qualified for the FIFA World Cup once, in 1982, were surprisingly eliminated from the Germany 2006 reckoning when they could only finish third in the Oceania qualifying tournament in Adelaide, losing sensationally to bottom-of-the-table Vanuatu along the way. In the three FIFA World Cup cycles prior to that, they had always found "big brother" Australia their nemesis.
Ironically, given that the Oceania group winner faces a play-off with the fifth-best nation in Asia, Ricki Herbert's men may just find themselves facing Australia again. Not that they would be thinking of revenge, of course...