Believe it or not, it helps football in Australia if the game is doing well in New Zealand.
Believe it or not, it helps football in Australia if the game is doing well in New Zealand. Why? Because the tyranny of distance binds the two nations together, whether we care to admit it or not.
That the Hyundai A-League needs a strong Wellington Phoenix goes without saying. What is less measurable is the relevance, and impact, of the fortunes of New Zealand’s national team. My view we lose nothing, and potentially gain something, if the All Whites are flourishing. Which is why I will be fascinated to see how the game across the Tasman reacts to the recent World Cup play-off defeat against Mexico. My instinct tells me we will be seeing more, not less, of the Kiwis in the future.
First, a brief history lesson. When football was first being organised in this corner of the world, New Zealand was at the table along with all the major states. Even after federation, the Kiwis continued to be part of football’s decision-making process, and when the game here formed its first national body in 1911, New Zealand was a member. Ultimately, however, the Kiwis opted to go it alone, although it’s instructive that Australia’s first-ever internationals (1922) were against New Zealand, and they have been the Socceroos most popular opponents (62 matches) over time.
The move to Asia, of course, has loosened those ties (just two games since 2006), but watch this space. The Mexican experience may have been a bruising one in so many ways for Kiwi football, but out of the ashes has come a renewed sense of purpose, both on and off the field. The post-match mood in Wellington was far more positive than the scoreline (9-3 on aggregate) might suggest.
In the political arena, it’s all systems go to try and re-integrate Oceania with Asia – something that happened throughout the World Cup campaigns of the 1970s and early 1980s. Football New Zealand is going to go hard with a plan to contribute Oceania’s half-spot to Asia in return for a place in a final 12-team World Cup qualifying round-robin. If not for 2018, then at the latest 2022. That formula provides the All Whites with five guaranteed home matches – the first two of which, at the very least, would sell out. As, you would imagine, would a World Cup qualifier against the Socceroos. For a sport which desperately needs to escape its hand-to-mouth existence, that’s as good as winning the lottery.
And here’s the thing. The All Whites have built box office appeal in the wake of their fairytale achievements at the last World Cup in South Africa. You only had to be in Wellington to see that.
There were 328 accredited journalists at the match (more than half the total for the 2011 Rugby World Cup), and the game was broadcast to an estimated 300million homes (including the large Hispanic community in the US).
Around $7million was pumped into the local economy over 48 hours – a fair portion at the bars – as a record 35,206 fans (including around 1,000 Mexicans) descended on the national capital on a perfect late Spring day. Very little of that money was spent on the most prized object of desire – a replica All Whites shirt – because there were simply none available.
That didn’t stop the stands being a canvas of white. Wedding dresses, cricket whites, white tuxedos, white boilersuits, white wigs. “All White on the Night” said the t-shirts. And with the “White Noise” doing their bit to, well, make plenty of noise, it almost was. Rory Fallon almost lifted the lid off the ‘Cake Tin’ when he scored, and but for a missed penalty, a penalty missed by the German referee, and perhaps a couple of tight offside calls, New Zealand might have scrambled a result. In the end the 4-2 loss was a vast improvement on the insipid performance in the first leg, so much so Mexican goalkeeper Moises Munoz later described the New Zealand players as ‘warriors’. At the very least they salvaged some pride.
The All Whites will go forward without Ricki Herbert, who left the post amid some acrimony, and even left for his Kapiti Coast home straight after the match with barely a backward glance. When the dust settles the game needs to take a kind view of Herbert’s many achievements, and hopefully the ‘Retro Ricki’ t-shirts will make a reappearance some time in the future. The ovation he got from the crowd at the full-time whistle certainly suggests his place in history is assured.
What Herbert did do with his parting shot is leave New Zealand with a team for the future. Of those involved in the play-offs, perhaps only Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund, Ivan Vicelich, Tony Lochhead, Leo Bertos and Rory Fallon won’t be around for New Zealand’s next major assignment, the 2016 Oceania Nations Cup. And in the likes of Marco Rojas, Storm Roux, Bill Tuiloma, Louis Fenton, Chris Wood, Kosta Barbarouses, Chris James and Winston Reid, the All Whites have the ability to transform their fortunes. Ange Postecoglou wouldn’t mind a couple of them for starters.
The next New Zealand coach probably won’t be appointed until March, when the team has a friendly pencilled in. Despite having a decent war chest (thanks to the deep pockets of Mexican broadcasters Televisa, Football New Zealand made as much money out of missing out on the World Cup as qualifying) it’s likely the position will be part-time, at least initially. That leaves the door open for a club coach to double up, and if things had worked out differently Graham Arnold might have got the call. As it is Ramon Tribulietx, a Spaniard who is about to head to his third FIFA Club World Cup with Auckland City, remains the early favourite to replace Herbert.
Truth is, despite some local angst, football in New Zealand is showing signs of getting its act together. It’s got a plan, it’s got some money, and it’s got some players. That makes New Zealand a far more attractive proposition for Australian football than might have been the case in the not-too-distant past.
The world might have got a lot smaller since 1922, but New Zealand hasn’t gotten any further away. On issues like A-League expansion (Auckland), joint inbound tours, coaching and development, FIFA politics, and hosting major tournaments, there’s plenty of reasons for the two nations to get re-acquainted. Don’t get rid of the on-field rivalry. That’s healthy. But outside the pitch there’s no reason why we shouldn’t start helping each other again.