After breakthrough success at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Ricki Herbert is hoping to lead New Zealand to an unprecedented second successive appearance on the world stage. Having featured as a defender for the All Whites at their only previous appearance, in Spain in 1982, Herbert has an inextricable link to New Zealand’s FIFA World Cup story.
Doubling up as coach of Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand’s only professional club, Herbert will this weekend turn his attention to dual FIFA World Cup qualifiers against continental champions Tahiti. New Zealand suffered a surprise semi-final elimination in June’s OFC Nations Cup, nevertheless, they reached the third and final stage of Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying alongside New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Tahiti. The winner of the four-nation group will play-off against a CONCACAF representative for a berth to Brazil 2014.
Now after opening with two wins from as many starts, Herbert tells FIFA.com about his hopes for qualification, New Zealand’s burgeoning crop of young talent, and building momentum for the game Down Under.
FIFA.com: What are your thoughts after the first two matches of the campaign?
Ricki Herbert: It has been a good start for us. Away to New Caledonia was always going to be a tough one, and then we had a really good result against the Solomons, so we are on track and setting our sights on getting six points now against Tahiti.
Is away to Tahiti, being continental champions and a lengthy journey, something you have identified as a major hurdle to overcome?
There is no doubt it will be tough, but they have started with two losses. So there will be a bit riding on it for Tahiti. Getting our players back is always a tough ask physically in terms of the distance, but we need to be good enough to cope with that, and I’m sure we can be.
How did missing out on the continental title back in June affect the team?
It was a massive disappointment. We put some focus on taking younger players. I think at some stage you have to take a backward step if you are going to produce players, and I think we have. But the World Cup campaign is the most important thing, so if we can get through Oceania, we can have a shot at a CONCACAF side, and who knows, maybe get to Brazil.
Speaking of young players, some new faces have been introduced to the team in recent years. How do you view the next generation coming through?
It has been good. We have Chris Wood, Marco Rojas, Kostas Barbarouses, Tommy Smith, Winston Reid, Dan Keat, Tim Payne, Cameron Howieson, there is a good group of young players. They are all under 23, and many under 20, so they have enjoyed some good experience through the World Cup.
It seems the team has more x-factor now in attack. Is that how you see it?
We have more diversity in the front part of the pitch. The defensive side is pretty solid with [Ryan] Nelsen, [Tommy] Smith and [Winston] Reid. But up front I think we have options now, which is a lot different.
It seems that if you do make it to Brazil 2014 the squad will have a different look?
Definitely. This is the reason we need to inject some young players into the squad. And if you don’t, what chance do they get? The future has to be important as well.
Did you note any trends in Honiara during the OFC Nations Cup?
I don’t think you do in a tournament when it is 41 degrees and 98 per cent humidity, and when you are playing every two days. That is something that I don’t think anyone else in the world would do, so in that sense it is quite a false environment to try and hedge marks upon. Now we are playing home and away which I think is fair for everybody, so let’s see at the end who is the best team in this group.
How important is it to maintain momentum in the New Zealand football community on the back of the success at the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
I think that will be really important for us. The growth and the excitement is there, and this team plays a massive role in that. As our programme progresses hopefully the interest keeps coming as well.
Did you ever imagine way back in 1982 that New Zealand football would make such strides?
I probably hoped it would, but that was probably more in anticipation more so than anything. It’s a real privilege to be part of it, whether as coach or not is irrelevant to me. It’s just great that football is at this level and we have a good professional side and a national team that could go to another World Cup.