All Whites look to end waiting game with Asia move
To watch New Zealand draw 1-1 against Italy in the group stages of the World Cup in Nelspruit (now officially called Mbombela,) was a special way to end a Sunday afternoon. As the sun sank over the rolling Mpumalanga plains, the anaemic Azzurri were left red-faced by the All Whites. Just a few days later, the side drew with Paraguay in Polokwane to exit South Africa as the only undefeated team. Both Polokwane and Nelspruit - especially the owners of the Keg and Jock pub in the latter - were sad to see the fans go as these relatively small host cities knew that the sun was setting on their World Cups also. With no knockout games and no major professional teams to occupy the new arenas, football fever came and went quickly.
New Zealand could sympathise. The three other teams from Group F have either qualification for Euro 2012 to be getting on with or next November"s Copa America to prepare for, but what about Ricki Herbert and his men? The immediate future is two October friendlies against Honduras and Paraguay before the 2012 Oceania Nations Cup, a tournament that also serves as the region's World Cup qualification. Assuming the All Whites are victorious – reasonable, considering 2008 opposition consisted of Vanatu, Fiji and New Caledonia - there is not much to do before the Confederations Cup in the summer of 2013 and a World Cup play-off later that year. If that second half against Italy felt like a long time, the next three years could drag.
With a gap of 28 years between their two World Cup appearances, New Zealand are accustomed to waiting. However, Herbert insists that there will be much to keep fans, media and players interested as the events of the summer have changed the dynamic of the sport in the rugby-mad nation, potentially for good.
Having signed a new two-year contract after the tournament, he now sees his job as not only making sure that the wait for the next World Cup is as short as possible but also keeping football moving on up, down under.
"Everything would just stop in the past, but not now," he told ESPNsoccernet. "There is going to be a meaningful program for the next few years and plans have been put in place. The national team is coming home next week and then we have two good teams coming to New Zealand for friendlies and that is something that didn't happen before. The World Cup has changed all that."
As far as competitive action goes, Herbert also dismisses the suggestion that after the glamour of South Africa, returning to their South Pacific backyard is like playing in the Champions League final one week and the first round of the Carling Cup the next. "It's different now because of the team's success,'' he said. ''We didn't qualify for 28 years so it was always going to be the case that prior to the Bahrain game, the levels of support were not going to be as high as they are now. Now the team will be supported wherever it goes and we have to build on what we have achieved. The support may not reach the levels of during the World Cup but it is different to before."
Some of the players are now at different levels too. The World Cup's shop window is a big one and equally large defender Winston Reid, scorer of the dramatic last-minute equaliser against Slovakia in Rustenburg, was rewarded with a transfer from the Danish League to West Ham United. Shane Smeltz shocked the Italians with an early strike and left Gold Coast United in Australia for Turkey's Glencerbirligi. Smeltz and Ryan Nelsen, the team's skipper, have both come out in support of a move that, they believe, would go some way to solving a good deal of the challenges facing New Zealand football. They both want to follow in the footsteps of Australia and join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Just before the World Cup, Smeltz said that his nation's future lies in the embrace of the world's largest continent, though this came prior to July when the striker didn't do an awful lot for the reputation of New Zealand football in Asia by signing for China's Shandong Luneng only to walk out on the club a week later. "It has gone well for Australia," he said. "Instead of just playing through Oceania and then playing a one-off game, it is still difficult but it doesn't prepare you as well going in to the World Cup. It would give us more games and give the fans more games to support and the interaction with the national team throughout the country would be greater for it. As long as, financially, the country can do what needs to be done, I can't see any reason why we shouldn't go in there."
With the South African dust settled, Herbert agrees. "I think that a move into Asia would benefit us and in time this may happen,'' he said. ''Globally, it would send us out there and it would give our teams exposure to all kinds of competitions and tournaments. It would be good in financial terms with television rights and all that. Our results at the World Cup have raised our standing and I am sure we could bring something. It would certainly be good for us but we'll have to wait and see."
It makes sense, from the New Zealand point of view at least. A look across the Tasman Sea reveals that. Australia don't only send teams to the Asian Champions League and various youth tournaments, they are preparing for January's Asian Cup, then qualification for Brazil 2014 and then hosting the 2015 continental competition. In football, perhaps more than any other walk of life, Australia is connecting with Asia and an increasing number of players are leaving the A-League to try their luck in leading Asian leagues such as South Korea and Japan.
For New Zealand, persuading the powerbrokers in those nations will be vital if any switch is to come. FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-Joon of South Korea and president of the Japan FA Junji Ogura are also both AFC and FIFA Executive Committee members. Ogura was a big supporter of Australia's Asian ascension but was less enthusiastic when asked about New Zealand earlier this year in Osaka. "I think in Oceania that they are working very hard to develop their own football scene," he said. "If New Zealand were to join the AFC there would then be the question of what would we do about the rest of the countries in Oceania?" With little appetite for Asia absorbing the whole of Oceania at the moment, it is not a question that Ogura or Chung are especially interested in finding out the answer to.
The western members of the AFC are still not completely on board with the Aussies, a feeling reiterated after West Asia failed to send a team to the World Cup for the first time since 1974. Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam will be reluctant to push for New Zealand in the way he did with Australia who offered a relatively strong league and high levels of professionalism on the pitch and off. What the All Whites bring to the table is less clear and even the strong showing in South Africa has planted doubts in hitherto open Asian minds, ones that now wonder about the benefits of helping a rival for future World Cup spots develop its game.
For the moment at least, New Zealand are staying where they are - though a compromise suggestion that instead of a one-off play-off against Asia's fifth team, the champions of Oceania could just join the final round of Asian qualification in which two groups of five fight it out has been raised - but whatever happens, Herbert is determined to ensure that the All Whites' sweat wasn't dropped on the soil of Africa in vain. New Zealand are not prepared to wait another 28 years and the road to Brazil 2014 starts now.