New Zealand: the reasons behind another painful year for football

When you’re dominant, it’s hard to measure the boundaries of your strength; especially when your opponents aren’t as strong as you are. This easily applies to New Zealand; we’re not talking about rugby, where the “All Blacks” are well-known all over the world, but they’re not crushing the opposition in a brutal way. The topic is football, where “All Whites” are about to face crucial times for football’s destiny in their country.
Uncertainty reigns all over OFC (Oceania Football Confederation), where even arranging a friendly game isn’t so easy. In 2015, New Zealand played just three games against South Korea, Myanmar and Oman. OFC Nations Cup was necessary to put football in motion in a region which clearly needs some help (and maybe a direct spot to FIFA World Cup final phase, just to raise awareness and attention about football). Seven years have gone since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when the squad managed by Ricki Herbert was the only unbeaten side of the tournament, with three draws including a shiny 1-1 against then-defending champions Italy, that were knocked out during group stage.

However, since that moment football in New Zealand hasn’t found its way to develop: in five years, “All Whites” played just 20 unofficial games (an average of four per year).

With no professional league, no wonder that New Zealand stumbled in 2012 OFC Nations Cup, when they were knocked out in the semi-final, giving Tahiti the chance of being the first nation to lift the trophy besides Australia and New Zealand in the history of the competition. Despite “All Whites” gaining back the trophy four years later, they struggled in the final winning only on PKs against hosts Papua New Guinea. And in May 2016, New Zealand obtained the worst position of their history in FIFA Rankings (161th place, but in February 2017 they rose back to 111th place).

New Zealand now look dominant in an isolated football landscape. New Zealand Football – the local federation – has even thought of joining CONMEBOL to change something, but without any result. And it’s bizarre, because New Zealand are winning every international competition in OFC: since Australia joined AFC in 2006, “All Whites” have conquered titles with women, youngsters and they reached some historical goals even in World Cups. Nevertheless, the New Zealand Football Championship – the local league – is semi-professional and the only club with a major status is Wellington Phoenix, which play in the Australian A-League, where they lived tough times financially speaking.

This leads to a counter-productive scenario, with a sole club ruling on both national and continental scale.

Wellington Phoenix

Auckland City’s name regularly pops out in December, when FIFA Club World Cup is held and the New Zealand club is OFC Champions League’s defending champion. You can call it a tradition, because the squad coached by Spanish manager Ramon Tribulietx has been dominant in recent years.

They made it seven continental titles in a row (nine overall) in May 2017: a blistering record, which doesn’t leave so much room for development, neither is positive for OFC or New Zealand football future.

Like Tribulietx reminded in a 2010 interview,

for a nation like New Zealand, without a professional league it’s not easy to put together a team able to compete at the highest stage.

However, some stats reported how in 2015 football was the third most popular sport in New Zealand. So the interest is slowly raising, but without a known league and an “international marquee player“, it’s tough to transform this passion into a constant.

That constant could be Chris Wood.

He was member of 2010 FIFA World Cup squad and he has been present during all this long and difficult transition period of New Zealand football. He debuted in the local league at 15, scoring a lot and making a name for himself. When he was eyed by West Bromwich Albion, this 1,91m big man didn’t stop scoring first in youth ranks and then in the reserve team.

Chris Wood New Zealand

Since he joined the first squad – debuting in Premier League at 18 years old –, Wood started a England tour as he was loaned out several times. While he was providing amazing performances with “All Whites” shirt (he almost scored against Italy at 2010 FIFA World Cup), the centre-forward kept on playing in Championship, the second English football tier. It seemed like he had found some stability with Leicester City, but finally Wood accepted Leeds United offer in Summer 2015, and his stunning performances (30 goals in 48 games in 2016-17) earned him a move to Premier League side Burnley in summer 2017.

Every football movement has its symbol: for New Zealand, Chris Wood – 18 goals in 46 matches with national team and the youngest captain of “All Whites’” history – might be the real key for “All Whites’” rebirth.

If New Zealand could start again, part of the credit goes also to Anthony Hudson, the new manager appointed by NZF in August 2014. Harry Redknapp labelled him as a “young José Mourinho“, when Hudson led Bahrain U-23 to win the Gulf Nations Cup, the first title of this nation in football. Despite Bahrain offered him a new two year-contract, Hudson wanted a new challenge, having control even of youngsters and, in fact, of all New Zealand football. If opponents weren’t exceptionally good, he deserves credit for getting back the continental crown in June 2016. After playing a couple of good friendlies against Mexico and USA (ended with a draw and a defeat), even former All Whites’ captain and defender Ryan Nelsen admitted New Zealand have improved a lot on the pitch. For a squad without many veterans – Shane Smeltz is the only long-time player remaining, while Vicelich, Nelsen and many others retired – this seems a new beginning.

Hudson New Zealand

However, while 2017 could have been the year of truth for New Zealand, Hudson and his players have just realised there’s still a long way to go to raise the footballing level of the country. In fact, the “All Whites” amassed 0 points in their 2017 Confederations Cup group stage and, in spite of reaching the continental play-off for Russia 2018, they were defeated at the hands of Peru, who won the return leg 2-0 to seal a World Cup return after 36 years. For New Zealand, instead, it will only mean they’ll have to wait at least four years more.

The door to the World Cup is now shut, but New Zealand should make of this failure a new starting point for the whole football movement.