New Zealand go into tonight’s crucial 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against New Caledonia entering a new period following the recent retirement of national team icon Ryan Nelsen.
Nelsen, the first New Zealander to enjoy a lengthy career in the English Premier League, has been a feature of the All Whites set-up since the Korea/Japan 2002 qualifying campaign.
West Ham defender Winston Reid has been handed the captain’s armband, and at just 24, a lengthy period at the team’s helm potentially awaits.
Victory tonight against New Caledonia on home soil in Dunedin would ensure Reid’s tenure beginning in the brightest possible fashion and confirm qualification for a play-off against a CONCACAF opponent later this year.
“Ryan is obviously a big loss for the team, he was sensational for us,” New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert told FIFA.com.
“But things move on and Winston gets the opportunity now as a very young captain to step into that position. Ryan was likewise very young when he took the role, and players always grow and develop in those positions and I’m sure Winston has the capability of doing that as well.”
New Zealand have a three-point buffer over second-placed New Caledonia going into tonight’s penultimate Oceania Brazil 2014 matchday.
However, should Les Cagous claim a win or even a draw, it would set up a tense finale on Tuesday. New Zealand travels to Solomon Islands, while New Caledonia host French-speaking rivals Tahiti.
The trip to Honiara will evoke some unpleasant memories for New Zealand who were toppled 1-0 there by New Caledonia in last year’s OFC Nations Cup semi-final. The All Whites managed to reverse that scoreline with a 2-0 Brazil 2014 win in Noumea last September.
“They [New Caledonia] have had a very good campaign as well,” says Herbert. “We are the only side to beat them to date so they are right there and they still have a strong challenge. It will be no easy task to beat them, albeit at home but hopefully that will be an advantage for us. It is right there for us to win the game.”
The match against New Caledonia will be staged at Dunedin’s futuristic new stadium which sports a glass roof. The indoor nature of the venue will protect the team from the elements in what is the most southerly of New Zealand’s four traditional cities. The fact that Antarctica is the next southerly landmass provides an indication of the vast contrast between Dunedin and typical conditions in the Pacific Island nations.
“It is a fantastic venue down here which bodes well for the evening,” said Herbert. “I’m sure there will be a good crowd and support behind us. It is great to take the national team around to different centres.”