Football in New Zealand has enjoyed unprecedented success over the past year, with right-sided midfielder Leo Bertos playing an understated but pivotal role. A remarkable 12 months began with the FIFA Confederations Cup, and a first point collected by the senior team at a FIFA tournament with their draw against Asian champions Iraq, before the All Whites booked their return to the FIFA World Cup™ following a 28-year wait. Just when it seemed it couldn’t get better, the Kiwis, despite being eliminated in the first round, remained undefeated at South Africa 2010 in a group that featured Slovakia, quarter-finalists Paraguay and 2006 world champions Italy.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bertos's Wellington Phoenix, the nation’s only professional club, reached the play-offs of the Australian A-League for the first time, falling just one match short of the championship decider. The stadium in the capital Wellington witnessed record attendances, both for the Phoenix and the All Whites, as New Zealanders took to the world game like never before. Bertos was indispensable throughout, playing every competitive match for his country during this period and fulfilling a key role for the Phoenix as they enjoyed breakthrough success.
Not that the Wellington-born Bertos, who has Greek and Maori bloodlines, is satisfied with such achievements. Despite a quiet nature, it is this inner strength that has undoubtedly help propel the 28-year-old to such heights. “I think we have now been noticed (internationally),” Bertos told FIFA.com.
At the welcome home parade in Wellington, it was amazing, it was like we had won the World Cup. The whole country - not just football fans - was really behind us.
“The thing for us is to keep that going, show that it was not a one-off and be consistent, and it is the same with the Phoenix. It is nice to be a part of it (growth in the game). But we need to keep it going, and I’m sure we have the right people on board to make that happen. We want to be like Australia and qualify for successive World Cups.”
Home matches for New Zealand have been a rarity with many of the squad plying their trade aboard, which, combined with the lengthy travel times, has contributed to the All Whites not appearing on home turf since their memorable qualification play-off against Bahrain last November. That was a match in which Bertos once again played the role of ‘best supporting act’ to perfection.
An inch-perfect corner allowed target man Rory Fallon to power home a header in the defining moment of the two-legged tie for what was arguably the most important goal in the nation’s history. Next month the All Whites will finally have the chance to pull on their boots at home again when fellow South Africa 2010 participants Paraguay and Honduras make their inaugural visit to New Zealand.
It will be another chance for the rugby-mad nation to display its new-found adoration for football, and it is a moment Bertos, who talks with the voice of a missionary for the game, will relish. “I didn’t realise how big it (our success) was until we got home from South Africa,” he said.
“At the welcome home parade in Wellington, it was amazing, it was like we had won the World Cup. The whole country - not just football fans - was really behind us. It goes to show that we have a good future in the game if we do the right things to keep progressing.”
Bertos spent much of his early club career playing lower-league football in England with the likes of Barnsley, Chester City, Rochdale and York City before joining A-League club Perth Glory. A successful two-year stint at the Glory ensued, but his career really blossomed with a move back to his hometown in 2008. A creative outlet on the flank, Bertos is a firm favourite among the Wellington supporters, and featured in every match on their way to the play-offs last season, claiming the all-time leading assists record for the club in the process.
Last season’s achievements were significant with New Zealand clubs having underachieved in their 11 years in the Australian national league. Under the tutelage of another South Africa 2010 hero, coach Ricki Herbert, the Phoenix are mirroring the success of the All Whites. Their home venue in Wellington, affectionately known as the ‘Cake Tin’, has become a fortress with the Phoenix undefeated at home over the past two years.
Much like the All Whites, Bertos is both confident and eager to see Wellington maintain their upward trajectory. “We have the core of the squad from last year,” he said. “We have retained nearly everyone, plus made a few additions. Everyone that is involved wants to make the finals series as a minimum, and we will be very disappointed if we don’t achieve that. This year is a big year for Wellington Phoenix and New Zealand football.”