With few exceptions, New Zealand’s national team is comprised of players from overseas leagues, or with Wellington Phoenix - the country's only professional team - in Australia’s A-League. Auckland City stalwart Ivan Vicelich, now in the twilight of his career, is one of the few notable and high-profile exceptions to the rule.
Another is Canterbury United midfielder Aaron Clapham, who despite - in contrast to Vicelic -h having never played professional football, has been a virtual ever-present in New Zealand squads since a surprise maiden call-up just prior to the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™. It made the versatile midfielder one of the few non-professionals at South Africa 2010.
Flying the local flag
Born and bred in Christchurch, Clapham follows in the footsteps of the city’s most famous footballing son, recently retired All Whites icon Ryan Nelsen. Perhaps, more influential in his formative years were football battles with older sister Sara who, in a rare double, also played for New Zealand. “We had some pretty good battles in the backyard,” Clapham told FIFA.com. “We spent a lot of time kicking the ball around together and it was a big part of my younger years.”
Like many young New Zealand footballers, Clapham started his senior football odyssey in the US-College system where he attended University of Louisville, and roomed with Chicago Fire’s Austin Berry. While Clapham agrees he is a standard-bearer of sorts for the local league, he is not wedded to the notion of spending his football career in the picturesque South Island city, and has had two stints in Australia’s second-tier leagues.
“I would jump at an opportunity, if it was the right move,” he said. “I would love to play in the A-League. The opportunities I have had have not been in a high-profile league. So the financial rewards may be greater, but it might take you out of the national team picture which is something that is pretty important to me.”
The New Zealand National League has just commenced its tenth season but, to date, despite some near misses for the likes of Canterbury, only Auckland City and cross-town rivals Waitakere United have won the championship.“(The league) has definitely improved a lot,” said Clapham. “Clearly off the field the organisation has improved significantly. In terms of the standard of play, there is still a gap between the top teams and the bottom teams but the top teams are improving at a good pace.”
Auckland City have defied the odds in recent years with some stoic performances at the FIFA Club World Cup. But just how challenging is it to go from semi-professional football to international level? “Obviously there is a step-up in quality,” says the affable Clapham, “But for me the biggest step-up is a mental one, in terms of higher expectations, bigger crowd, being on TV and what have you.”
Ahead of the final-round of CONCACAF qualifiers, Clapham rather poignantly said about the All Whites’ hopes for the play-off: “There could be a big impact for us compared to (if we get) say Honduras or Panama, or if it happened to be Mexico.”
Unfortunately for Ricki Herbert’s charges, a 5-1 defeat last week against Mexico at the Azteca, leaves only the slightest glimmer of hope that the team can reprise their South Africa 2010 qualification heroics in Wellington on Wednesday.
“The mindset of New Zealand football changed a bit after we qualified for the last World Cup, and about what is achievable,” said Clapham. “The biggest problem we have had (in the past) is there hasn’t been too many opportunities for young players. When I was a kid there was no real pathways for young players. That is changing now, and a lot of people are working hard to change that. In the next ten or so years that will have a big impact.”
For now, of course, the immediate challenge is overturning a four-goal deficit against Mexico. “Obviously we are all disappointed with the result over there,” said Clapham. "We don’t have a choice now but to push in attack and embrace that.”
Four years ago, the All Whites overcame Bahrain in front of a record New Zealand football attendance in what Clapham describes as “one of the great moments in New Zealand sport”. The ‘Cake-Tin’ in Wellington is again sold out for what is a rare high-stakes international match in New Zealand. “To play a very good team at home is still exciting,” says Clapham. “We felt like we let our fans down last week, so now in front of our own crowd we are keen to put the best foot forward.”