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Note, a previous version of this article had some factual errors which we have since corrected, following response from our readers. Thank you to every one who took note, and apologies for the error.
Will Miller looks at the downward spiral of football in New Zealand following their commendable display in the 2010 World Cup.
It’s coming to the business end of the Oceania qualification cycle for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the New Zealand National team (the All Whites) haven’t played a game in three months. That was a penalty shootout win against Papua New Guinea in the Oceania Nations Cup. Before that tournament they had friendlies against footballing forces of Myanmar and Oman. We have to go back more than a year to March 2015 in order to find the last time the All Whites had opponents that would force them to improve – South Korea. More recently the organisation of New Zealand Football has been tainted by systematic cheating within the senior team as well as multiple youth teams, leading to the Olympic team being expelled from Brazil 2016; NZF failing to submit transfer paperwork for the country’s only professional club because everyone was on holiday; and the All Whites recently slipped to 161st in the FIFA world rankings, their lowest position ever. Things have got a little better recently, winning the Nation’s cup is still a win and they are currently ranked 93rd in the FIFA charts. But the feeling among fans is that this is only papering over the cracks of a broken organisation.
2010 was the peak of New Zealand Football. The All Whites had made it to the World Cup, which for a nation of 25 professional footballers was a remarkable achievement in itself. But once there, they actually got a point in their first game! They then took the lead in their game against reigning champions Italy, and despite conceding an Italian penalty, a draw was another historic moment. They finished the tournament with a draw against Paraguay, putting them on three points. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to progress, but thanks to Spain’s 1-0 loss to Switzerland in the group stage, they went home as the only team undefeated! All in all, things were looking pretty good going into 2011.
However that year they only managed three games over two international windows: a fairly respectable 1-1 draw with China in March meant things were still looking rosy, but successive 3-0 defeats to Mexico and Australia in June raised questions. Not only were these questions asked about the team’s ability, but the commitment of a governing body that only offers three games per year. To give some perspective, the All Whites played at least six games per year in four out of the five years from 2006-2010 with the great World Cup success.
2012 wasn’t much better, with the All Whites only managing to finish third in the OFC Nations Cup, and NZF organising only three friendlies. Although questions had to be asked about how they intended to make it to the World Cup in Brazil with draws against El Salvador, along with losses to Jamaica and New Caledonia. But all this was only in preparation for 2013, and New Zealand’s biggest test since the World Cup: a home-and-away knockout tie for a place in the pots in Brazil. After a few warm up games against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago; the big day was here: an epic clash in front of almost 100,000 people in the Estadio Azteca. They were walloped. 5-1. After that, the manager Ricki Herbert decided the only thing the home leg was good for was showcasing the next generation of players to the fans. And maybe, maybe, for the people who watched the 2-4 loss, they were happy with what they saw. But I doubt it.
Following this, New Zealand Football decided that they needed a fresh start, replacing Ricki Herbert with Anthony Hudson in August 2014. Though there were question marks about his motivation and longevity – many people suspected he was simply using the role as a stepping stone to bigger and better things – no one was complaining about appointing a man widely regarding as one of the world’s best young coaches. A former assistant to Harry Redknapp at Spurs, he earned his UEFA Pro Licence at the age of just 31, making him the youngest person ever to achieve the licence. In his first year in charge of the All Whites, the team played three friendlies, losing two against Uzbekistan and Thailand, and drawing with China. They followed this up with a 1-0 loss to South Korea in March 2015, then took a six month break from international football before matches against Oman and Myanmar mentioned at the start of this piece.
The real story however, took place in July 2015 with the U-23 Olympic team. The ‘Oly Whites’ as they are known defeated Vanuatu 2-0 in the semi-final of Oceania qualifying but because they fielded an ineligible player (Deklan Wynne), Vanuatu were awarded a 3-0 win and a place in the final. This was an absolute disaster for all of New Zealand Football. A journalistic investigation uncovered 16 ineligible players who had played for the U-17s, U-20s, U-23s, and senior team in the previous year alone. Luckily, the U-17s kept their place in the World Cup, and New Zealand was hosting the U-20 World Cup so there was no qualification needed. Both teams made it to the round of 16 in their respective tournaments, but that could never hide the issues circling NZF. To have 16 ineligible players competing in a single year with not one person noticing and raising the issue is either systematic stupidity, or systematic cheating. I’m not sure what’s worse. Given Hudson’s policy of scouring the globe searching for talented foreign-born players eligible to play for the All Whites, I believe NZF must have a good knowledge of FIFA eligibility criteria, but also an incentive to bend those rules if they believe they can get away with it. This points towards systematic cheating: New Zealand Football must have known that these players were ineligible, but chose to play them anyway in the hope of succeeding. Possibly the worst part of all of this is the fact that, for the Oly Whites at least, it was totally unnecessary. New Zealand would almost certainly have qualified for the Olympics without needing Wynne; they are easily the best team in the Oceania Confederation.
So where does that leave us in New Zealand? It leaves us with a group of would-be Olympians missing out on what would probably have been the biggest stage of their footballing lives because some bureaucrats decided to cheat for no good reason. It leaves us with youth players having less and less incentive to represent their country at age-group levels because they see that they be replaced by foreigners who have little or even no claim to the white jersey. And it leaves us with a national team having had no real footballing test in two years, with a win in playoff against the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying required to qualify for Russia 2018. They are nowhere near good enough.
To top it all off, NZF seem to be willing the country’s only professional club to dissolve. The Wellington Phoenix submitted paperwork for the loan transfer of Alex Jones to NZF, who promptly botched it. Jones is a very good young striker, and would’ve helped the Phoenix’s success, which in turn would massively boost Football’s profile in New Zealand. But, in a situation that can only be described as comical, NZF decided to allow their employee in charge of club transfers to leave three days before the end of the January transfer window, and the replacement somehow managed to lose internet access for the three days until the window closed. Everyone else was on holiday for Auckland Anniversary Weekend, so the paperwork never went through. Jones had to hike all the way back to Birmingham and the Phoenix had no new striker for the business end of the A-League season. With the Phoenix needing to meet multiple crowd and broadcast conditions to extend their A-League licence beyond 2020, this loss could potentially prove fatal for them. Losing the country’s only professional club would be a massive blow for football in New Zealand, and the All Whites could count on watching future World Cups from home.
Being a football fan in New Zealand is always tough; the general vibe of the nation is “pick that bloody thing up and run with it!” When the organisation in charge of the beautiful game is constantly finding new and creative ways to make the game ugly it’s downright miserable. I, along with every other fan in New Zealand love watching our team in the Olympics, our team playing football against quality opponents, and most of all our team at the World Cup. Thanks to New Zealand Football, none of that will happen.