Eaten Alive By Sydney
February 9, 2010 – 2:49 am | 5 Comments

When the prospect of a shift to Sydney is raised, the doomsayers often rise as well. And they’re nasty! The manner of one’s demise is always different, but the result is always the same – …

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FOOTBALL FOR AFRICA!

Submitted by on June 21, 2010 – 9:40 am157 Comments
FOOTBALL FOR AFRICA!

World Cup fever is spreading around the globe faster than the Spanish flu. Symptoms vary depending on what country you are from, but for Kiwis it’s a mix of head shaking bemusement and euphoria. Sydney Newbie caught up with New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert & midfielder Simon Elliott well before the tournament…and they knew they could foot it with allcomers, including the world champion Italians.

It’s time. Africa spawned humanity. The world’s peoples embraced football. And now, for the first time in history, the FIFA World Cup will be played on the soil of our common ancestors.

A record 200 countries attempted to qualify for the planet’s biggest sporting event, a campaign that lasted more than two years and involved 853 matches across FIFA’s six confederations. Now 32 teams will converge on South Africa, ranging from European powerhouses like defending champions Italy and beaten finalists France and South American wizards such as five-times champions Brazil right through to Oceania minnows New Zealand.

Not that the Kiwi team, called the All Whites and supported by Thai Airways as principal sponsor, are daunted by the prospect of confronting teams that are unquestionably more football savvy and skilled.

New Zealand, captained by Blackburn Rovers skipper Ryan Nelsen, don’t care if everyone they come up against has a much larger population, a greater football heritage and many more top drawer professionals to choose from. It’s 11 versus 11 on the pitch. And in reaching the World Cup finals for only the second time, following the gripping 1982 campaign, the All Whites won’t be out-enthused. The three Group F matches will be the games of their lives. Slovenia. Italy. Paraguay. Bring them on!

“We want to be competitive,” says long-serving midfielder Simon Elliott. “There’s no point in being happy just to be there. We have to be like everyone else – attempting to get to the next round.”

The All Whites are in a good head space. They worked hard to beat Bahrain, a lofty 22 places above them in the world rankings, in their final home and away qualifying hurdle. They have a settled squad of seasoned professionals, a potent strike force with more depth than ever before, a much-respected coach in Ricki Herbert and an inspirational captain in Nelsen.

Elliott says the stars have aligned to bring a strong squad together at exactly the right time. “We have a number of key guys in mid-career, at the peak of their powers, playing in good leagues around the world,” he said. “They’re not intimidated when they confront great players or hostile crowds or extreme conditions. They adapt, they tough it out.”

The official slogan of the 2010 World Cup is KE NAKO – Celebrate Africa’s Humanity™. “Ke Nako” is a Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana word for “it’s time”.

Bringing a glint to Elliott’s eye in particular are the fearsome foursome – strikers Shane Smeltz, the Australia A-League’s top goalscorer out of the Gold Coast, Rory Fallon of Plymouth Argyle, Chris Killen from Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion’s teenage tall timber Chris Wood.

“We’ve always had one or two good goalscorers,” Elliott says. “But to have four in the same squad is huge.”

Coach Herbert agrees. “We’ve worked really hard in that department and with Killen, Smeltz, Fallon and Wood there’s four very exciting players who have a good future in the game, not just for this World Cup but for future World Cups.”

Herbert firmly believes in utilising the resources at his disposal and making the play. In that regard, he hasn’t been scared to maximise use of his strike force. “I haven’t shied away from playing three of those four players at a time which was extremely crucial going into the qualifiers – both home and away – against Bahrain. It signalled our intentions…that it was too big an opportunity to sit back and wonder ‘what if’. We gave it our best shot and at the end of the day it proved to be the right recipe.”

Now he wants to cook up more surprises. With managerial skills honed in regular competition as coach of the Wellington Phoenix, which rocked the A-League by making the preliminary final in the recently-completed season, Herbert has become comfortable in his coaching skin. He has faith in his players. And he believes in their build-up.

The All Whites played Mexico in Pasadena in early March, dipping out 2-0 in front of 90,000 spectators, and will have a training camp for Australasian-based players before warm-up matches against Australia in Melbourne, Serbia and Slovenia in Europe and Chile in South Africa.

“I don’t think we could have done any more as far as the quality is concerned,” Herbert says. “All those teams are ranked in the top 30, if not higher. From a travel component, where New Zealand is situated geographically brings its own demands and takes away a little bit in terms of what we can do. But I’m more than comfortable with that.

“It’s enough time for us to mould ourselves into a difficult team to beat at the World Cup and once we hit the starting gates on the 15th of June there’ll be no looking back. We’ll either be ready or we won’t be. We’ll have no excuses, that’s for sure.”

Playing in last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa has certainly helped. The All Whites, currently ranked 80th in the world, lost to world No. 1 Spain and hosts South Africa before a draw with Iraq – securing New Zealand’s first ever point at a FIFA tournament.

Herbert says that Iraqi match was “a defining moment” for the team. Elliott says the clash with Spain was equally important.

“Once you’ve played a team like Spain, you appreciate what level the bar is being set at,” Elliott said. “You’re not going to play too many better teams and it gives you a little boost. There’s no fear of the unknown and it gives you confidence to know that you can compete.”

More than 3 million tickets will be available for the 64 matches of the 2010 tournament, to be played at 10 venues around South Africa.

“What a fantastic side,” Herbert says of the Spaniards. “That was an extremely steep but valuable learning curve. The past four years have provided us with a bit of that, which we’re thankful for. We’ve played Brazil, we’ve played Italy, Spain…the top teams in the world.

“I’ve always wanted to pitch the team as high as we possibly can and we’re certainly doing that again going into the World Cup as far as preparation is concerned. And the teams we’ve drawn are right up there too. That’s great for us, it’s a challenge we need and it’s the level of football people in New Zealand want to see.”

The level of support being generated in rugby-mad New Zealand has certainly surprised, with Wellington embracing the Phoenix and also providing the perfect battleground for the World Cup qualifying clincher against Bahrain.

“It’s incredible,” Herbert says. “It’s really captured the imagination of the New Zealand public and that’s really important. As a team, we’ve applauded the support we’ve had and we’re extremely thankful at the volume of people who have turned out…not just at the football matches but turning on their TV sets to celebrate success.”

Herbert sounds a note of warning to the sport’s administrators in New Zealand, however: don’t let this opportunity slip.

“We just have to keep building. It would be nice to keep that momentum going forward because – I mean, it’s not by default that we had 30-35,000 came to those Phoenix games; and children aspire to the All Whites. The last thing this side needs after the World Cup is to stop playing.”

The team is well aware courageous performances will be crucial for expanding its fan base. Kiwi fans don’t expect miracles. They just want to see the side “give it heaps”.

Elliott, who made his international debut way back in 1995 and whose 60 caps include four World Cup qualifying campaigns, has been at the centre of enough All Whites teams to appreciate there is a special feeling in the camp.

“At the moment there is real harmony within the squad and that is reflected on the field. We’re in a position where we’ll jump whatever obstacles are put in front of us and we’ll play whatever is in front of us. Because, let’s face it, the World Cup is the pinnacle.”

His pragmatic attitude and passion is echoed by his coach. “There would be no-one more disappointed than the management if we were to get nothing from the playing tournament,” Herbert says. “We’ve got to go there with confidence, be extremely positive and if we can can create results it would be a wonderful outcome for us.

“We won’t be holding back; we haven’t done for four years and we have no intention to simply make the numbers up. Sure, we’re realistic about the teams and where they’re positioned with FIFA rankings, but New Zealand is a nation renowned for punching above its weight and I’m sure we can do that again.”

WORLD CUP AT A GLANCE

  • South Africa will hold an historic 19th World Cup, the first time the tournament has ever been held on the African continent.
  • The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930. The hosts won.
  • Only seven nations have won the World Cup title. Brazil, the only country to attend all 18 tournaments, has triumphed a record five times, just eclipsing current champions Italy, with four titles. The other winners have been Germany (three titles), Argentina and Uruguay (two each), plus England and France.
  • The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. The total audience for the 2006 World Cup was estimated to be more than 26 billion and more than 715 million watched the final.
  • The original World Cup – called the Jules Rimet Trophy and named after the FIFA president who set up the first tournament – depicted Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory, and was given to Brazil in perpetuity after they won their 3rd tournament in 1970. It was stolen in 1983 and never recovered.
  • The current FIFA World Cup Trophy, showing two athletes holding up the earth, is made of solid 18 carat gold, but winners only receive a gold-plated replica.
  • Qualifying tournaments to find the World Cup finalists are held within the six FIFA zones – Africa, Europe, Asia, North & Central America & Caribbean, South America and Oceania.
  • Some 20 million fans – an average of almost 23,000 per match – attended qualifying matches, creating a new attendance record for FIFA World Cup preliminary competition.
  • The 2014 World Cup will be held in Brazil (hosts back in 1950).

RICKI HERBERT: ON THE SPOT

New Zealand football coach Ricki Herbert will enjoy a rare distinction when he coaches the All Whites at the 2010 World Cup. The 49-year-old will join the ranks of legends like Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagollo who have contested World Cups as players and managers. What makes Herbert’s feat even more remarkable is that his country, New Zealand, has only ever qualified twice – 28 years apart!

Sydney Newbie: You have enjoyed a fairytale last six months at club and international level.

It’s been a fantastic outcome of a lot of hard work and application. Four years ago when we set off to qualify for the World Cup we only had one thing on our minds, which was qualifying. To get the (Wellington) Phoenix through to the (A-League) finals in the same period of time is unbelievable. A hard one to describe, but very proud to be part of it.

Sydney Newbie: Why has it come together for football in New Zealand?

That’s the multi-million dollar question really. There’s been a lot of good people, a lot of understanding. Nationally we’ve created a very strong and healthy culture, which takes time. The players have been extremely dedicated towards being a successful team. There’s a lot of passion and heart around us. For me it’s at a completely different level than we’ve seen before and I think there’s a lot of similarities with the Phoenix – we’ve created a good culture, we’re very well respected across the Tasman and we’ve been incredibly hard to beat at home. There’s a lot of planning and work that goes into that and hopefully I’ve played a part in that.

Sydney Newbie: The skill level and pace of the game seems to have shot up in recent times.

You have to keep working on that area because it’s constantly evolving right around the world. The first thing I wanted to do, especially going in with the Phoenix, was to make football exciting for people in New Zealand, who have been starved of quality football for a number of years. I think people have been attracted to, and excited by, a group of players who really wanted to make a difference. That’s developed and grown over the years as we’ve not only become a successful team, but an exciting one to watch.

Sydney Newbie: How do you approach the All Whites given the players are so far flung?

When I first started off with this challenge – and it is a challenge, given geographical constraints and financial constraints – we were determined to turn any issues into opportunities to build character. The squad as a whole has benefited, experience-wise. We’ve groomed a lot of players who were very young international players four years ago. We’ve found new players who are New Zealand-born and are playing at very good levels of club football around the world. The depth and quality within the side now is vastly improved from where it was and hopefully that can continue to grow.

Sydney Newbie: You went to the 1982 World Cup in Spain as a player. How will this compare?

From a personal point of view, when I went to the World Cup as a player I was still young,  21 during the campaign, extremely excited and it was a competition that always seemed so distant. But then we were a part of it. The one thing that sticks in my mind is that the opportunity came and went very quickly. Not being able to get back there until 30 years later has instilled a real demand in my mind that, from a players’ point of view, you take advantage of every opportunity you get. A lot of these players now are at professional football clubs, but the level of football around the world has increased dramatically as well. I think in some respects it was easier back in the 80s because all our players were New Zealand based and we had access to training camps and games on a much more regular basis. Personally, it’s a different experience for me and I’m extremely proud to be going back to a World Cup as a manager.

Sydney Newbie: It is a very rare distinction to go to World Cups as a player and as a manager…especially out of New Zealand!

You could probably count them on one hand around the world. I’m just very humble and proud to be part of that group, a top echelon. Just thoroughly looking forward to it. It’s so fantastic for the game. The national side is the iconic team and to have the All Whites back playing at the World Cup, I can’t wait to see what it does for the nation. It could really galvanise it, just like the 80s. The wave of interest and support around the game now is just phenomenal.

Sydney Newbie: I get the feeling the country is primed to get behind you at the World Cup.

I wouldn’t disagree. We’ve got the football team to the stage where people are extremely excited. They sensed through the build-up that there was an opportunity, they saw us take that opportunity to produce the best outcome we possibly could and I think people are genuinely excited to see the team back on the world stage. It’s the pinnacle of any sport and the public in general is going to be very supportive and interested to see how our program and the World Cup itself pans out.

Sydney Newbie: What are your goals? What will you be pleased with?

I’d be really disappointed if we can’t go and be an entertaining side that gets possession of the ball and creates goal-scoring opportunities. At the end of the day results are going to be incredibly important for us. We’ve never won, we’ve never drawn at a World Cup, albeit we’ve only been once, and those two have to be very much on our radar. We’re going to need to cop a team that’s a little bit down and we’re excelling in our performance. We’ve done it before (against top opposition), we have fantastic character throughout the squad, there’s plenty of passion in the side and to be a successful team we have to create history. That’s certainly our intention…to go there and get results.



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