New Zealand’s momentous qualification last November for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has raised hopes that the All Whites can make a significant impact on their second appearance on the world’s greatest stage. However, the Oceania representatives face a number of logistical issues in preparing their team for South Africa 2010, some of which are unique to the team from the ‘land of the long white cloud’.
Coach Ricki Herbert is used to working with the All Whites squad sporadically, with the national team only taking the field on 28 occasions across nearly six full years since their early elimination from the 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign. The tyranny of distance has been one factor contributing to the sparse schedule and has also meant Herbert has not always had his best side available in those matches.
The other major hurdle facing the New Zealanders is the lack of regular club football in the months leading up to South Africa 2010. Many of the squad members play in the Australian A-League, which concludes in March, leaving a large gap prior to fulfilling their Group F fixtures against world champions Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia.
Currently the New Zealanders have just one match confirmed for the coming months: an extremely challenging visit to Pasadena, USA for a meeting with CONCACAF champions Mexico. While the current FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking of the two nations suggests a one-sided contest, history advocates a different view.
The form book well and truly went out the window 30 years ago in the only previous meeting between the sides when a young Ricki Herbert made a memorable international debut as the Kiwis recorded one of the nation’s best results with a 4-0 home win. "It (Mexico) is a massive game,” says Herbert. “It's important to stretch ourselves leading into the World Cup - but those elements: quality opposition, big crowds, playing away from home are all things we need to consider.”
The All Whites are set to announce a comprehensive match schedule in the coming days, with their plan based around a late but intense build-up. The squad will gather in mid-May and play a number of international opponents in the weeks leading up to their opener against Slovakia.
In the meantime, the Australia and New Zealand-based players, seven of whom started that memorable final qualifier against Bahrain, must attempt to maintain form and fitness at the conclusion of the A-League campaign. Key players including goal-machine Shane Smeltz, vice-captain Tim Brown and flanker Leo Bertos will finish their commitments as early as mid-February if their respective teams fail to make the finals.
“It has been pretty difficult (putting together a suitable schedule ahead of South Africa 2010) with over half of the squad playing out of season so most of them are facing a 2 or 3 month break,” says New Zealand Football chairman Frank van Hattum. “It is really important to get a good solid build-up and have a good month together before June, so the challenge has been to find games that will mean being prepared for the 15th of June (against Slovakia in Rustenburg)."
Unlike a number of Australia’s A-League players, who are seeking opportunities to ensure they keep playing until the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Herbert hopes to keep his locally-based players together once their domestic commitments finish. "I want to take them into camp, I'd like to get them abroad somewhere and play two or three games," Herbert said. It is a tricky balancing act for Herbert, who is also coach of the Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand’s only A-League team, where a number of the All Whites are based. Indeed, club commitments precluded Herbert from attending the 2010 FIFA World Cup draw in Cape Town last month.
The last 12 months have proved a breakthrough for New Zealand football, with the U-17s achieving a first-ever qualification for the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament. The All Whites then followed up a resolute showing at the FIFA Confederations Cup with that memorable qualification achievement against Bahrain. Now the challenge is to make 2010 even more memorable as Van Hattum is at pains to point out: “Being on the biggest stage is a great focal point and it’s a matter of making sure we take all the opportunities that come out of that and maintaining credibility."