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all whites fly soccer's flag

By unknown | Dec 29, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

WELLINGTON - Winning the right to come to South Africa for the 2010 finals has put football in the spotlight in New Zealand - where rugby is the national sport - for the first time in a generation.

It has been a long time coming. The All Whites have made the finals only once before and that was in Spain in 1982.

Despite being minnows on the international football stage, they beat Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and China to get to Spain after a gruelling 14-match qualifying series.

Nobody expected them to threaten the giants of the sport in the finals and they predictably went down to Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil.

But the results in the qualifiers were not important. In the words of the late New Zealand Football Association World Cup director Charlie Dempsey: "We have won our World Cup - our World Cup was getting to Spain."

The 2010 squad has had an easier road to the finals, playing only eight qualifying games to win the Oceania title. It beat the Asia confederation's fifth-placed team, Bahrain, in a playoff match.

The tyranny of distance is the biggest problem hindering the development of New Zealand football. The country's isolation gives its players limited opportunities to compete with the world's best and improve themselves.

Star All Whites, who want to make their mark on the sport, have to join clubs in Australia, Europe or the US and it is never easy for officials to get them all together and arrange national matches against challenging competition.

The All Whites managed only three games - two against New Caledonia and one World Cup qualifier against Fiji - last year and badly needed the string of friendlies they were able to arrange around this year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they were eliminated in the first round.

Their inspired display in the qualifiers has motivated them going into the 2010 World Cup where they play against reigning champions Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia in Group F.

New Zealand failed to score in three Confederations Cup matches but finished the campaign with a 3-1 friendly win over Jordan in Amman.

Officials and fans alike have no illusions about the prospects of the All Whites footing it with the best players on the planet in South Africa next year.

But they will give their all and in reaching the finals they have given the sport a huge fillip that has put soccer on the map again in New Zealand and will encourage a new generation of potential World Cup finalists to take up the game.

The coach:

Qualifying for South Africa is a dream come true for coach Ricki Herbert, 48, who was in the 1982 squad that went to Spain - the second youngest player after Wynton Rufer. Herbert, a defender who played 61 full internationals for New Zealand before becoming the first home-born coach of the national side in 50 years, also coaches the Wellington Phoenix club that plays in the Australian league.

The star:

Ryan Nelsen, 32, the All Whites skipper and a veteran with 40 caps, is one of the most successful New Zealanders to make it in top-flight world football. Captain of English Premier League side Blackburn Rovers, he has played in an FA Cup final, the UEFA Cup and two Confederation Cups. He showed his class in the Bahrain playoffs, keeping a cool head and rallying his troops when they were under pressure. - Sapa-DPA


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