Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Long & Winding Road

I'm having a rare night off tonight, to refresh my frazzled batteries. So, I'm giving this place over the good people at Sportsfreak for their analysis of the current travails of the New Zealand football team. They could be set to make the World Cup Finals for the first time in nearly three decades.

On the other side of the world from Europe, twelve hours before a night of European Championship qualification (or otherwise), New Zealand virtually guaranteed themselves passage through to the next round of qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup by knocking off fellow regional heavyweights Vanuatu. That’s right - the much maligned Oceania confederation is a good two years ahead of the rest of the world.

Oceania has always been the ugly kid sister of the FIFA family. So much so that our dear friends over the other side of the Tasman Sea decided that it was way too lowly for them, and felt the Sheilaroos were best served by taking their toys and playing with their new friends in Asia. So now the ugly kid sister is even smaller. But it has always been a difficult group from which to qualify, largely because there is no continuity of matches of a similar standard.

New Zealand have only qualified for the World Cup once before (in 1982), and in doing so set the world record for most matches played to get there. Following topping the Oceania qualifying series, thanks mainly to an upset victory in Sydney, the All Whites were then pooled with the leading Asian teams with the top two qualifying. A year later we were still neck and neck with China for that second spot, so a one-off showdown in Singapore was arranged, and New Zealand made it. Since then, the route from Oceania was made shorter but harder. Following the Oceania qualification round, now split into between two and four divisions and always won by Australia, came a home and away tie against the "Best of the Rest" from whichever confederation got allocated an extra half a place at the top table during the latest round of horse-trading.

This fixture, however, was usually a year or so after Australia’s progression. So while we took delight at seeing them get drawn against Argentina or, even more hilariously, watching Venables’ much vaunted side throw away a two goal advantage at home against Iran in the last fifteen minutes, there was a feeling of injustice in this. They were always drawn against a side that had been through many more competitive matches, and had not had the long stand down. Even though the sequence was finally broken in 2005 due to a penalty shoot-out victory over Uruguay, it was obvious that the Australian decision to join Asia, while geographical nonsense, was a sound footballing move.

Well, New Zealand finds themselves on the brink of something similar. So what does the average All Whites fan get to chew over now? This week’s stroll over Vanuatu (I can hear you all running off to Google Earth now), a postponed “home” game against Fiji in Newcastle (Australia, not Tyneside) in January and a final home and away match against the French colony of New Caledonia in… 11 months time. Still, one shouldn't grumble; the best chance in 28 years for World Cup glory awaits against the 5th placed Asian team. Sadly, it will come a year or so after that last competitive run-out in Noumea (reach for Google maps again). It’s a shame really. Soccer (yes, that what it’s still called here) has never been in better shape. Thanks to its McDonalds’ sponsorship and an increasing physical (read Polynesian) aspect to rugby, it is now the most played sport amongst those under 17. Finally, due to the largely off-field success of The Phoenix, there is now at last a regular professional team to follow, accompanied by TV coverage.

Adding to that, this is a time when other major team sports in New Zealand are at a low ebb. The hallowed All Blacks early exit to a woeful French team at the World Cup will take years to recover from. In addition, the cricket team has just been humiliated in South Africa, the rugby league team have just lost a series 0-3 to Great Britain, and the netball team have lost their world crown. However, by the time that the Asian game comes along the juggernaut will inevitably lost some of its momentum.

No doubt there will be some friendlies in Europe during this 30 month period, especially as a lead-up to Euro 2008. In the past we have also managed to snatch the odd game against sides from the Championship. But whether the likes of Nelson, Killen and Elliot are available for these is another moot point. History would indicate otherwise, so when the big names next don the famous white jersey it will for the biggest game in 28 years.. Hardly the best way of building team-work or combinations. What odds that this tie will be against Australia?


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