A vital, yet understated, factor in New Zealand’s historic qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ was the role played by wide midfielder Leo Bertos. While goalscorer Rory Fallon and goalkeeper Mark Paston received the bulk of the plaudits, the unassuming Bertos also made a hugely significant contribution in the 1-0 home win over Bahrain which secured New Zealand’s first FIFA World Cup appearance in 28 years.
The direct running of the 28-year-old caused havoc on the right flank throughout the match in Wellington, while Bertos’ pinpoint crossing created a number of goalscoring opportunities. Indeed it was a perfectly flighted corner from the Wellington Phoenix man, converted by Fallon, that ensured Bertos will forever feature prominently in any New Zealand football highlights reel.
After several seasons in the English lower leagues brought only limited success, Bertos finally found his feet four years ago after linking up with Perth Glory in the Australian A-League. However it was a move to his hometown of Wellington that proved the making of a player who is now in form of his career, starring for a Wellington Phoenix side that recently earned their first Australian A-League finals appearance. Under the tutelage of coach Ricki Herbert for both club and country, Bertos is enjoying a 'boy's own' 12 months, which began with the FIFA Confederations Cup last year and, after the landmark successful qualification campaign, will hopefully conclude with a creditable showing at South Africa 2010.
Until recently, any conversation on New Zealand football inevitably involved mention of qualifying for the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain, such was the magnitude of that achievement. However, recent success at domestic and international level has made for a rapidly changing landscape, reaching a pinnacle on 14 November 2009.
Bertos and his All Whites team-mates were both inspired and motivated for the winner-takes-all intercontinental qualifier against Bahrain by the achievements of Herbert and his contemporaries 28 years earlier. “Before we qualified, and we spoke about New Zealand football, it was always 'what happened in 82',” Bertos told FIFA.com .
We wanted to be the next group of players talked about.
“Those guys did it back in 82 and most of them weren’t even professional footballers. They went through a really hard route and qualifying campaign. That motivated us to think, ‘Everyone is talking about 82, why can’t they talk about 2010’. We wanted to be the next group of players talked about.”
New Zealand now face the challenge of trying to compete amongst the world’s elite despite being well out of their domestic season. A number of regular All Whites feature in the Australian A-League, which concludes in the coming weeks, leaving Bertos and the likes of vice-captain Tim Brown, defender Tony Lochhead and star striker Shane Smeltz, facing the prospect of a lack of match fitness come June.
“That is just something we have to deal with,” said a relaxed and phlegmatic Bertos. “It is just part of it and we have to prepare the best we can with the national team. We are going to be getting some good warm-up games, and we are really looking forward to testing ourselves.” The Kiwis will kick-start their run-in to South Africa 2010 next week with a difficult assignment against Mexico in Pasadena, with further matches against Honduras, Australia, Serbia and Slovenia also pencilled in.
Come June, it will be time to lock horns with Group F opponents Slovakia, Paraguay and world champions Italy. Twelve months ago, the All Whites put up a valiant fight before succumbing to the Azzurri 4-3 in a friendly international that saw Bertos demonstrate his prowess by providing assists for two of the All Whites goals.
It is, however, another European nation that Bertos dreams of testing himself against: Greece. The midfielder was hoping to be pitted against the land of his father’s birth in the group stage but still harbours the hope that the two nations can meet later in the tournament. “We can’t really talk that far ahead because we have to be more realistic and concentrate on how we are going to get results in the group games,” he says. “If we get that far it would just be nice to play anyone, but Greece in particular would be special for me.”