The New Zealand All Whites are one step away from qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and, perhaps equally importantly, changing the landscape of the sporting scene in their Rugby-mad homeland. The build-up to New Zealand’s hosting of Bahrain, where a ticket to South Africa 2010 awaits the victor, is all-consuming in Wellington ahead of the sell-out encounter.
The Westpac Stadium, affectionately known as the Cake-Tin, will be filled to its 35,000 capacity and will comfortably break the record for a football match in New Zealand, with the final release of tickets snapped up within minutes. The streets of the national capital are filled with supporters donning New Zealand gear, while local media, normally the preserve of the ‘All Blacks’, is also crammed with news of the match. Fans have been encouraged to wear white to the stadium in support of the national team.
The first leg in Manama last month remained scoreless meaning the home side need a win to progress, while Bahrain have the luxury of knowing that a score draw will be enough to progress. Whatever the outcome though, history is set to be made. New Zealand will be aiming to reach the world stage for the first time in 28 years, while Bahrain have the opportunity to debut as the smallest nation to qualify for the FIFA World Cup
New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert has a settled line-up to call on with the only injury concern being experienced midfielder Simon Elliott who has missed some of the team’s training sessions this week with a hip injury. Herbert though has an able replacement in former Celtic man Michael McGlinchey.
Despite the high profile build-up Herbert says his charges are in confident mood ahead of arguably the biggest match in the nation’s history. "There is a very good spring in everyone's step,” says Herbert. “There's been a very positive approach to everything we've done. It's a wonderful opportunity for the game."
Herbert, a veteran of the famous team that went through a then-record 15 match qualifying campaign to reach Spain 1982, is more than aware of Bahrain’s capabilities. The Bahrainis having seen off regional giants Saudi Arabia on away goals in the Asian play-off.
"Bahrain are a technically good side,” said Herbert. “They've got pace. I think they will keep coming and I think that's been evident of their away fixtures. In some cases you could argue they have been the better team away from home. We're under no illusion as to what the task is going to be. But where we sit and what we've done during the week we also feel confident."
Hurdles for visitors
Bahrain spent several days this week across the Tasman Sea in Sydney though recent warm weather in Australia is set to contrast with strong and chilly winds predicted in ‘Windy Wellington’ for kick-off. Coach Milan Macala is hamstrung by the absence of injured striker Ala’a Hubail, while some European-based players including key forward Jaycee John have been late arrivals after a long trip across the globe. "This game is an opportunity for both countries,” says Macala. “I think it will be a very tough game.”
Bahrain enters the match with several survivors from the side that suffered the heartbreak of losing in the intercontinental play-off against Trinidad and Tobago in 2005. The team are experienced and battle-hardened following a lengthy campaign lasting 20 matches. That experience could prove to be the players most important ally in the white-hot atmosphere of battle.
The home side will be cheered on by veterans of the Spain 82 All Whites squad, who will be paraded before the crowd prior to the match. The oldest member of the squad, Sam Malcolmson, sums up the greater context for the match: “The legend these guys could leave could be the building of the game to the level it is deserving of in this part of the world."
The team having scored most goals over the two games will qualify for the next round. If both teams score the same number of goals over the two matches, the goals scored away will be counted as double. If the same number of goals is scored away or both matches end without any goals being scored, extra time of two periods of 15 minutes each will be played. If no goals are scored in the extra-time period, penalty kicks will be taken to determine the winner in accordance with the procedure described in the Laws of the Game.