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Durante eyeing World Cup berth

When Andrew Durante begins speaking about the prospect of playing World Cup football, there is an obvious spike in his tone.

Rd 1: Brisbane Roar

He could only watch in awe and dared not to dream when the 2010 tournament rolled around in South Africa. Despite his steady form with Wellington Phoenix, Durante accepted that a berth for his native Australia was near impossible.

But in a swift turn of fate, luck or what have you, the 31-year-old is now staring down the barrel of the most important 12 months in his career.

Adopted by New Zealand earlier this year, Durante made his debut in a qualifying win over the Solomon Islands. Now all that stands in his way of a flight to Brazil next year is a two-legged playoff against a CONCACAF side, with the small caveat that it could be the dangerous Mexico.

Offering optimism for Durante is New Zealand's journey to the 2010 World Cup, when Ricki Herbert's side progressed with a dramatic win over Bahrain in Wellington.

Regardless of the result in November, things are looking up for one of the game's veterans.

"It's been great, I've wanted to play international football for quite a while and to have the opportunity now has been fantastic," he told ESPN. "It's gonna be very tough, they did it four years ago, they had to beat Bahrain over two legs and they did that. Lady luck was probably watching over them a little bit and it was meant to be.

"This time it's going to be a lot different, you're coming up against quality opposition in Mexico, or possibly Honduras or Panama and the first leg over there is going to be quite an intimidating atmosphere, I imagine.

"But hopefully we can get a decent result and it'll give us every chance to get a better result here [in New Zealand] in front of a full house."

On the domestic front, Durante has just as big a challenge. Morale was low as Phoenix were handed the A-League wooden spoon last season, with an average attendance of just 6,877 -- down by almost 2,000 from the previous season.

But Phoenix were only five points off a spot in the finals and, albeit sporadically, looked a team capable of causing waves.

"We want to be in the playoffs this year, definitely, that's the aim," he said. "There's the old cliché that once you get in there anything can happen and it's so true, especially in this league it's a really close league.

"We finished last [last season] but it could've been any of the bottom 3 or 4 teams that could've finished last, probably only the top four teams were really consistent all season and outside of that it was a bit of an up and down season for all of the other teams

"Sometimes you've gotta hit rock bottom to realise what you've got to do so it could be a blessing in disguise that we hit those lows."

Those lows Durante speaks of have not always characterised his football career. After finishing up with NSL club Parramatta Power and having a brief stint in Singapore, Durante joined the Newcastle Jets.

In his third season under Gary van Egmond, Durante tasted the success of an A-League Championship, being crowned the Grand Final's best player in the process.

The closest he has gone to replicating that glory is two finals appearances in Wellington. And it's those near misses that keep him motivated.

"There's been some really big highs and some really big lows since I've been at the club," he added. "My first season at the club was a bit of an up and down one, there were a lot of new players getting together and trying to gel together and it didn't go to plan, we finished second last or third last that season.

"But the season after was a fairytale one where we made it to one game short of the grand final and that was probably one of the highlights of my career. The two home games we played in the finals of that season was pretty special.

"Having a New Zealand team go well when all the others had failed was pretty special and after that the next two years we qualified for the play-offs again which was pretty special."

Times are a changing at the Westpac Stadium, spurned on by the appointment of Ernie Merrick. The dual A-League Championship-winning coach traded in his post as Hong Kong boss and has already stamped his authority in Wellington after a series of roster changes over the off-season.

Phoenix's successful pre-season campaign, which included the scalps of Newcastle and Sydney FC, with a narrow defeat to reigning Premiers Western Sydney, has given Durante plenty of faith in his new boss.

"Hopefully now under Ernie we can kick on and go all the way. He's hugely influential, right through the club, not just on the playing field but right through the club, he's stamped his presence on it and might it kind of his own.

"It's been brilliant, he's got different theories and ideas and his philosophies on football are really different to Ricki's. As you expect all coaches have got their own styles but the boys have really taken to the new brand of football that Ernie wants us to play and he's brought in young New Zealand boys that have showed some promise."

A further two years awaits Durante in his new home and the defender could be forgiven for feeling ten years younger considering what 2014 could have in store.

Wellington Phoenix at a glance:
Last season finish: 10th
Ins: Carlos Hernandez, Kenny Cunningham, Reece Caira, Lewis Italiano.
Outs: Isaka Cernak, Mark Paston (retired), Tony Lochhead, Alex Smith, Dani Sanchez, Jimmy Downey, Lucas Pantelis.
Prediction: Despite their off-season clearout, it's hard to see Wellington's fortunes changing dramatically this season. But given the A-League's tight competition, they should be able to avoid the wooden spoon and move up a place or two.


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