We’re not going to qualify for the World Cup this time around. Maybe not even the next time. As journalist Andrew Voerman points out, unless there’s a change in the qualifying path for the All Whites, the inter-confederation playoff is a lottery. Fourth placed team in CONCACAF? See you in Russia. Fifth place in CONMEBOL? Yeah, see you in Qatar.
The 2010 World Cup was a peak. For the professionals who’d plied their careers overseas and those who were part of an early-doors A League, the performance against Bahrain was the victory their hard yards in harder times had deserved. The squad of 23 had more than half of its players aged 29 or over. South Africa was, for those men, their first and last chance to make it – given the rigours of club and international football.
What followed was an inevitable decline – partly due to the increased expectation, partly due to mystifying decisions made by New Zealand Football and head coach Ricki Herbert (see Ben Sigmund’s biography for details, in stores now!) Attempts to refresh the team, by introducing younger players, didn’t pay off. Mexico soundly put away the All Whites in 2014 – and that was disappointing – but Mexico were ranked 15th in the world that year. Bahrain were ranked 60th in 2009. Equating the two? Yeah, nah.
Despite that, I believe New Zealand football is in a stronger position than it was in 2010. Those younger players from the Mexico game, among them Kostas Barbarouses, Marcos Rojas, Storm Roux and Bill Tuiloma, are all still involved in the All Whites setup – with Barbarouses making his return to the Wellington Phoenix this summer.The Nix celebrate a decade since their founding this season, with the potential for another decade at the top a result of a loud, passionate and well supported (by other A League fans too) campaign against the FFA. The establishment of a permanent top-level club and the subsidiary Academy and soccer schools can only be a positive for the game in New Zealand.
Meanwhile the amateur domestic summer league in New Zealand has expanded this year, taking it to ten teams. The league features the Phoenix’s Academy team, but many other teams feature former All Whites or current youth internationals. 2014 saw Auckland City come third in the Club World Cup, beating the Champions League winners of Africa, South America and Central America on the way. Last season saw Clayton Lewis and Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi get their first All White caps, with Lewis going back to youth grade to feature for the Junior All Whites.
The Junior All Whites took out the OFC U20 championship in fine style in the last week, featuring many of the side who took to the field in the U20 World Cup the year before. The 2015 tournament itself marked a big step forward for the game, with the Junior All Whites not just registering their first win at an U20 World Cup but qualifying for the knockout stages too.What football in New Zealand has now, that it didn’t have in 2009, is an institutional capacity. What was notable about Anthony Hudson’s All White squad for the 2016 OFC Nations Cup was its youth, much of it stemming from the improvement in pathways for players in the years following 2010. In the most recent Nielson poll, football (labelled soccer – sigh) was the only team sport to grow in popularity.
While the lottery of qualification for World Cups remains the biggest barrier to New Zealand reaching the grandest stage and while New Zealand Football does delight in making high profile errors, it’s still pretty difficult to say that the game itself is in worse shape now than it was six years ago. In the establishment of solid foundations in domestic and A League football, and the improvement in our youth international structures, we are slowly increasing the odds of us pulling off a victory against whichever opponent we are drawn – regardless of their ranking.
Rest assured, it won’t be another 28 years before the next great All Whites team line up at a World Cup – even if FIFA don’t change the qualifying criteria. The future’s bright. The future’s All White.
Categories: All Whites
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.