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Jun 13, 2009

New Zealand's African adventure

The Confederations Cup gives Asian champions Iraq their big moment on the international stage. But from a World Cup perspective, there's another team in South Africa whose performance will be as closely watched by some Asian fans.

New Zealand, the land of the haka, hangis and Howlett (as in former All Black rugby player Dougie) has temporarily become a football nation of global interest with a looming play-off against Asian opposition for a place at South Africa 2010.

As Oceania champions, New Zealand will travel to face the fifth-placed team Asian team on October 10th before hosting the return leg on November 14th. The winners will grab a spot at the world's most prestigious football competition.

What makes the play-off more intriguing is the uncertainty of which Asian side will get the chance to keep alive its World Cup chances. With Japan, Australia and the Korea Republic already through, one of four other nations face the possibility of a meeting with the Kiwis - at least until the final matches of the fourth round of Asian World Cup qualifying on June 17th.

The third-placed teams from Asian groups A and B will duel over two legs in September with the victors tackling New Zealand a month later.

Iraq's participation in the Confederations Cup - while providing significant sentimental value given the civil war they've endured since 2003 - has little bearing on next year's World Cup with Bora Milutinovic's side already eliminated.

New Zealand's soccer players are called the All Whites and for good reason. Because, compared to the household names and international heroes of their rugby cousins, the All Blacks, it's like night and day.

The All Whites have appeared in just one World Cup - Spain '82 - where they lost all three group games, scoring two goals while conceding 12. As they go into their third Confederations Cup, they've failed to pick up even a point in their previous six matches in Mexico (1999) and France (2003).

When they won the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Cup last September, they overcame minnows New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu. But at the mini-World Cup, New Zealand's group opponents are European champions Spain, hosts South Africa and the Iraqis.

New Zealand showed that they won't be overawed by the occasion when they stretched world champions Italy in a warm-up game in Pretoria on Wednesday. They led three times - including by 3-2 with just over 20 minutes to go - before losing 4-3 against an under-strength Italian side.

Even so, the All Whites can't shake their 'underdogs' tag. Their captain, Ryan Nelson is missing after tearing a calf muscle playing for Blackburn Rovers against Chelsea in the English Premier League last month. Many of their squad, including Germany-born striker Shane Smeltz, are playing out of season, with the Australian A-League in the middle of a six month break. Fellow front-man Chris Killen - who scored two goals against Italy - has been warming the bench for much of the past two years for Scotland's Celtic.

But coach Ricki Herbert, who appeared in the 1982 World Cup as a 21-year-old defender, dares to dream ahead of the two important matches later in the year.

As a player, Herbert was part of some famous victories over trans-Tasman rivals Australia, who've lost to the All Whites more times than they'd care to remember. But with the Socceroos moving from Oceania to Asia in 2006, the two neighbours now rarely meet at senior level on the football field.

There's also talk that New Zealand may one day try to follow the Aussies into the AFC: an idea that Herbert believes should be opened up for debate.

But Australia's move to Asia hasn't been welcomed by everyone. Kuwait boss Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah was quoted earlier this year as saying that the Socceroos could be kicked out as quickly as they came in if ever there was a change of AFC leadership.

Although the region currently has four-and-a-half World Cup spots compared to just two at USA '94, some Asian countries aren't exactly overjoyed with Australia - who've now qualified for two World Cups in a row - taking one of their precious places. While they don't have the firepower of top-ranked Australia (29th compared to Japan's 31st), New Zealand, at number-82, are above the likes of DPR Korea, Qatar and China and would be far from pushovers if they joined Asian qualification.

But assembling players for international matches remains a challenge for the All Whites who draw on North America as well as Europe and Australasia. Four squad members earn their living in Major League Soccer, after going through the U.S. college system. Even absent skipper Ryan Nelson arrived at Blackburn Rovers via Greensboro College, Stanford University and MLS club DC United in the U.S.

With New Zealand's first two group matches of the Confederations Cup in the fast-growing city of Rustenburg, in North West Province, coach Ricki Herbert and striker Shane Smeltz took time out to speak to ESPNsoccernet.

Q: Ricki, what are New Zealand's chances of getting their first ever point in a Confederations Cup in this tournament?
A:
I think we have to believe it's a real possibility

Q: Shane, what kind of scoring shape are you in, given that the A-League season finished in February?
A:
Obviously everyone that's been involved in the A-League has had a bit of a gap recently but I've had a good pre-season and the three big friendlies we've just played have ticked us over again and after getting on the score sheet against Italy I'd say I was in pretty good shape.

Q: Ricki, how will the absence of captain Ryan Nelson impact on your chances and your preparation towards the World Cup playoff?
A:
Losing Ryan is a massive blow, albeit one tempered a little bit by Ivan Vicelich. Ryan not only plays week in week out at arguably the toughest league in the world, but is captain of his club so the experience and leadership he adds to the group will be sorely missed. If there is a silver lining to his injury it is that, perhaps after a long season, this enforced break will mean Ryan is in top shape when the World Cup playoff rolls around.

Q: Shane, although you're committed to the Gold Coast United in the A-League, how big a 'shop-window' to the world is the Confederations Cup for your skills?
A:
I'm not really thinking about that sort of thing. I've gone to Gold Coast and am enjoying my time there so far. We've got a big debut season coming up and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Q: What defenders are you most looking forward to tussling with at the Confederations Cup?
A:
Obviously the first game against Spain is going to be the pick of the bunch I think. Playing the likes of Puyol, Ramos and the Spanish defence is going to be a great challenge and one I'm really looking forward to.

Q: Ricki, how important a preparation is the Confederations Cup for the World Cup playoff?
A:
The Confederations Cup is vitally important for our World Cup playoff preparation. We've got at least three games that, when looked at as a package, give us key elements of what we are likely to face in October and November. Iraq gives us a feel for Asian opposition, South Africa a taste of intimidating home support and the match against Spain will be a lesson in intensity and a huge step-up in quality. It's an exciting proposition but one that should gives us plenty of experience to take into two massive games for the sport in New Zealand.

•  Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster, corporate host and media trainer.

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