All football fans around the world remember how amazing were New Zealand’s achievements at the last World Cup in South Africa. Overall for the world game’s supporters in the country, those moments seem like they happened yesterday.
But the reality is that we’re in April 2012, almost two years from those unforgettable heroics. Since then, how much has football progressed in New Zealand at any level?
The All Whites
Our obvious first analysis is to try to understand how the All Whites’ have managed to make a respectable name for themselves in this time.
The first datum that comes under eye is their FIFA ranking position: 130. Certainly it doesn’t reflect correctly their real worths and abilities, but if they’re classified under teams like Lichteinstein, Burundi, Namibia, Luxembourg and Saint Kitts & Nevis (with all the due respect to them), and considering that before the World Cup they were 82th, some questions need to be asked.
The first problem is isolation. New Zealand’s geographical collocation doesn’t encourage many big national teams to go there to play a friendly match. On the other hand it’s difficult for the All Whites to fly whole days to play somewhere else.
And this is the answer to their wretched ranking position: since the last World Cup, New Zealand has only played six matches, drawing twice and losing the leftovers.
This problem existed before the World Cup and will always exist, but there was the hope that they could have played some more games after shining in South Africa.
The second issue are their results after the WC:
New Zealand-Honduras 1-1 47′Wood (North Harbour Stadium, Auckland, 9/10/10)
New Zealand-Paraguay 0-2 (Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 12/10/10)
China-New Zealand 1-1 53′McGlinchey (Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, Wuhan, 25/3/11)
Mexico-New Zealand 3-0 (Invesco Field at Mile High, Denver, 1/6/11)
Australia-New Zealand 3-0 (Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, 5/6/11)
New Zealand-Jamaica 2-3 55′Wood 89′Killen (Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland, 29/2/12)
Four losses in six matches, only four goals scored, nine goals conceded in the last three encounters.
These numbers just show how poor have been the All Whites’ outcomes in these two years.
A premise is needed: it’s the first time in history that New Zealand arranges friendlies against oppositions like Paraguay at home, and we have to consider they were used to play against opponents with the likes of Tahiti, Vanuatu and Fiji. But winning games helps to build confidence and respect, so Ricki Herbert’s have to learn how to do it.
Consequently the next question is: why did New Zealand lose so many games?
After watching all these matches, we have to admit that opponents like Paraguay, Australia and Mexico (even if they were on dope when playing) are really too strong for them. These games overall served as experience for players, the result is a minor matter and shouldn’t be a worry.
The Jamaica game was a good experience too, despite the loss in a match where a young All Whites side deserved to win, as a preparation for the next play-off against the 4th CONCACAF team in the road to Brazil 2014.
And the draws to China and Honduras are acceptable as they’re on the same level of New Zealand.
We can definitely say that the results are miserable, but their usefulness has been huge.
A generational change
In two years the number of players under Ricki Herbert’s radar has significantly changed. Youngsters like Kosta Barbarouses, Marco Rojas, Michael Boxall and Michael Fitzgerald have all been introduced to the team, while some pundits (ex. Simon Elliott, Ivan Vicelich) are on their way to hanging up their national team boots.
Despite the scarce achievements, this new All Whites side has a considerable amount of talent and is a much better competitive crew, probably the best kiwis senior national team ever.
Comparing the 2012 All Whites with the 2010 WC heroes, these are the most important aspects to point out:
-Only seven players were based in Europe in 2010, while now there are eleven, only considering the ones who make regularly the All Whites squad (plus Cameron Howieson, who has become a first team member at Burnley at just 17)
-Four players are playing in the MLS (Boxall at Whitecaps, Boyens and Keat at LA Galaxy and Gleeson at Timbers), while just two were the US-based kiwis two years ago (Boyens at Red Bull New York and Elliott, who was even unattached in the tournament)
-There are ten u23 players currently involved in the All Whites, while there were six in South Africa (which was a considerable number anyway).
The tactical revolution
We all remember that the All Whites in South Africa seemed more to play rugby than football: they were extremely physical, they played long balls, they used more frequently their heads than their feet, they only thought to defend.
Infact they had the lowest percent of ball possession among all the teams in the tournament.
But it was an understandable approach to the game, considering that they were the underdogs of the group one of the humblest team of the competition.
Now they’ve started a new style of playing football. We can definitely say they’ve started to play football!
Their tactical system has totally changed. Ricki Herbert’s formation is a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 (in South Africa it was more a 5-4-1 or 7-2-1), and players’ characteristics are extremely different.
The wingers are quick, sfiwt and techinically skilled. For example against Jamaica, Herbert put Marco Rojas (5 ft 6 in, 20 years old) and Kosta Barbarouses (5 ft 7 in, 22 years old) on the wings, while the powerful Chris Wood (20 years old) was the only main striker in the team.
At the last World Cup, the three forwards (just on paper, because they defended for the whole games) were usually Shane Smeltz, Rory Fallon and Chris Killen. Smeltz was the smallest of them, with a height of 6 ft 1 in.
Players like Dan Keat in central midfield help team to build goalscoring attempts, while defenders like Winston Reid, who has immensely improved in this season, Tottenham’s Ryan Nelsen and Tommy Smith offer a good protection in defence.
The keeper will be no more a trouble for years, with the talented Jake Gleeson growing up fastly in the MLS and with Scott Basalaj caughting the eye of several teams in the UK.
Youth teams’ coaches don’t have to focus on results, but on players’ development. But necessarily for New Zealand’s circumstances, results are a good index of progress, just because facing Oceania teams force them to win with a considerable margin.
The U17 showed how good has become youth football system in the country. Their performance at the U17 World Cup in Mexico was outstanding (with the exception of the heavy loss to Japan in the knockout stage), specially for their passing game on the pitch and their individual skills. It’s not a surprise if players like Cameron Howieson at Burnely have already made their debut in professional competitions, or others like Tim Payne at Blackburn Rovers have been signed by European teams.
These considerable improvements have been the consequence of a reasoned and very well organized planning, with the introduction of élite academies, like the Chelsea-linked APFA (Asian Pacific Football Academy), which are extremely prepared at youngsters’ growth.
Basic skills development for players aged twenty has already been done and the Young All Whites performance at the last U20 World Cup proved they were still suffering the rugby’s influence that football has always had in New Zealand.
Chris Milicich’s side was similar to the 2010 All Whites squad, with a team that thought more to defend than other, made up of massive, physical players.
The results in Colombia were huge, specially the 1-1 draw with Uruguay, but it will be difficult to see some of these young kiwis playing professional football in the future, apart from some whizkid like Marco Rojas and Cameron Lindsay.
The Oly-Whites can be be judged only after the Olympic Games in London, but the signals are not very promising after the qualification tournament held in Taupo in March, which saw them winning three of the four games played against the Pacific Islands narrowly.
The case is the same for the Young All Whites: the players have exceed the time of their best technical improvements and have been developed mostly on the physical dowries.
A little eye out of the pitch
The interest in football has generally grown in the country. The world game has become the most popular sport for boys under 15, and has officially become women’s national sport, with some Ferns playing at the biggest level in Europe (ex. Ria Percival playing the UEFA Champions League semifinal with his team FFC Frankfurt in Germany).
However the attendances have not been so exciting as expected, in particular for the Wellington Phoenix, the only professional franchise in the country.
There’s also the issue concerning the TV broadcasting rights, with Sky NZ that every time doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about paying for the All Whites’ matches.
To increase New Zealand football popularity the biggest step to take would be joining the Asian Football Confederation, with soccer-mad coutries like Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia who would be excited about the idea of facing an undefeated World Cup squad.
Despite the senior results on the pitch have been poor, New Zealand is trying to make the next, decisive step to become a real football team, in all his difficult circumstances for rugby’s influence on youth development.
The path is the right one, and in the future more talents will emerge in the country, with some good promising signs shown by the U17 side.
It’s hard to forecast where the country will be for Brazil 2014, but if they manage to further grow focussing on the technical and tactical aspects of the game, building international experience on the players’ shoulders with more friendly games to come and creating the right atmosphere for another crucial match like Bahrain in 2009, it won’t be utopia to see the All Whites in their second consecutive World Cup.