Remember this date: November 14th, 2009. On that day, New Zealand's national soccer team clambered to the peak of a great summit unseen since the dreamy days of 1982: they qualified for the World Cup. Mark it on a graph, if you will, and then prepare to trace a trajectory ever-so-steeply downward for the All-Whites, since simply qualifying was the goal for New Zealand, and everything else from here is likely one valiant trip downward for them.
It is difficult enough simply being New Zealand on the international stage: a small national squad whose players all toil elsewhere due to the dearth of quality domestic soccer, FIFA rewarded their outstanding achievement by placing them in a group with defending World Cup champions Italy and two very tough teams in Paraguay and Slovakia. FIFA really thinks you've lost some weight, by the way. You say you're hungry, are you? Here's a whole cake with your name on it. Try not to eat the whole thing, dear.
The group looks and most likely is going to be heinous, but this must be said of New Zealand: they play with tremendous effort and rolled to a 5-1 record through the Oceania Football Confederation Cup before beating Bahrain 1-0 to qualify for the Cup. This must also be said: their dogged effort is not properly matched with elite talent, and when opposing teams begin to score on them, they have a tendency to score in bunches against the All-Whites. As with most of the teams ranked in the seventies worldwide, they can beat any team that overlooks them on any given day. As with any of those teams, the possibility of them beating a top 20 team paying due attention to them is minimal at best.
How They Got Here
Rolled through the OFC Cup (5-1) before the crucial matches against Bahrain in November of 2009. In two games the New Zealanders managed to score just one goal, but that was one more than Bahrain netted. The friendly schedule before arriving in SA should be a fair test: having already lost to Mexico 2-0 in LA in March, New Zealand will face Australia in Melbourne on May 24th before pre-Cup matches against Slovenia, Chile, and Serbia. In case you didn't know it, New Zealanders have to fly more than you've ever flown in your life just to get anywhere, much less play four globe-hopping matches before turning to South Africa.
How They've Fared Before
One other World Cup apperance in 1982 yielded three losses and a -10 goal goal differential in a heinous group with Scotland, the Soviet Union, and Brazil. But who's still around, Soviet Union, eh? EH?
/points to Flight of the Conchords DVD
Players To Watch
Plenty of interesting types, though not always for good reasons. Mark Paston, the goalie for the Australian League Wellington Phoenix and the hero of the 1-0 Bahrain qualifier for a heroic save, is recovering from a broken leg. Though he says he's at full fitness, the conditioning late in games has to be a question for someone who could be called on to make a lot of saves. Another A-leaguer, Shane Smeltz of Gold Coast United, just came off a 2009 Golden Boot campaign in the A-League and must be part of any scoring for the All-Whites.
The team is held together by 32 year old defender Ryan Nelsen, a Kiwi actually playing in the EPL with the Blackburn Rovers. Nelsen is the captain of the New Zealand squad and the linchpin for the All Whites backline. He'll play well as long as he's there: his wife is due with their second child at any moment, and Nelsen has said he'll leave the squad because "nothing on earth" can stop him from going. Fatherhood scores points here for Nelsen's dedication, and so might the opposition if he's absent from the lineup.
How Far They Can Get
If they have a song like Ray Woolf's 1982 theme for the All Whites' other World Cup squad, "Headed for the Top?
Well, if that's their theme they're doomed. Earning a point would be a triumph in any group for New Zealand; doing it in Group F is going to be an exercise in chicken dentistry for the All Whites.
But if they have a really kickass theme like a boozy punk singalong?
Well, they're still doomed. Charming, of course, and as likable a 1,000/1 underdog as you'll find in the tournament. But yeah: doomed, doomed, doomed.
|Bannatyne, James||34||3||0||Team Wellington (New Zealand)|
|Moss, Glen||27||15||0||Melbourne Victory (Australia)|
|Paston, Mark||33||20||0||Wellington Phoenix† (New Zealand)|
|Boyens, Andrew||26||14||0||New York Red Bulls (United States)|
|Lochhead, Tony||28||27||0||Wellington Phoenix† (New Zealand)|
|Nelson, Ryan||32||38||6||Blackburn Rovers (England)|
|Reid, Winston||21||0||0||FC Midtjylland (Denmark)|
|Sigmund, Ben||29||13||1||Wellington Phoenix† (New Zealand)|
|Smith, Tommy||20||1||0||Ipswich Town (England)|
|Vicelich, Ivan||33||65||6||Auckland City (New Zealand)|
|Barron, Andy||29||11||1||Team Wellington (New Zealand)|
|Bertos, Leo||28||31||0||Wellington Phoenix† (New Zealand)|
|Brockie, Jeremy||22||15||0||Newcastle Jets (Australia)|
|Brown, Tim||29||24||0||Wellington Phoenix (New Zealand)|
|Christie, Jeremy||27||20||1||FC Tampa Bay (United States)|
|Clapham, Aaron||23||0||0||Canterbury United (New Zealand)|
|McGlinchey, Michael||23||4||0||Motherwell FC (Scotland)|
|Fallon, Rory||28||4||2||Plymouth Argyle (England)|
|Killen, Chris||28||30||10||Middlesbrough FC (England)|
|Smeltz, Shane||28||27||15||Gold Coast United (Australia)|
|Wood, Chris||18||6||0||West Bromwich Albion (England)|
* - age as of June 11
† - team plays in Australia's A-League