Friday, October 30, 2009

New Zealand and the World Cup

As noted in a previous post, the All Whites' improbable lurch closer to qualification for South Africa has sparked a bit of interest locally, although not from either of the woeful main TV channels.

The specialised New Zealand sports media (rugby, cricket) is sometimes slightly more well-informed on its subject than the general press, with its celebrity obsession and gleeful know-nothingness about serious matters.

But for football there is little objective analysis. So the aftermath of the Bahrain game saw celebrations of a "heroic" defensive performance and some lamentations that the 0-0 result would require a "clear win" in order to go through. With the classic something-for-nothing expectation that sometimes typifies Kiwi attitudes, there seemed to have been hope that we would somehow sneak an away goal in Bahrain, get a 1-1 result, and then desperately hold out for 0-0 in the return leg.

So much for the assumption that the least you can expect of a nation seeking a place with the world's best is to win at least one game against a half-decent team. In reality, the All Whites are extremely lucky to still be in the contest, and would have been four or five behind if Bahrain's front men hadn't been competing for the most outrageous miss.

Lest anyone think that I am just knocking, I should stress that I think there is some promise in the New Zealand team, and that part of the problem lies with the odd tactics of coach Ricki Herbert, whose hit-and-hope approach in Bahrain was reminiscent of the New Zealand cricket team's top order batting.

In the Bahrain game, Herbet seemingly set out to simultaneously batten down the hatches and go for all out attack. He picked three strikers, with Australian League top goal scorer Shane Smeltz tucked in behind "target men" Chris Killen and Rory Fallon, and pretty much everybody else relegated to a defensive formation. Leo Bertos, the player with the most creativity and pace in the starting lineup, who usually plays on the left, was placed in the unfamiliar position of right back.

The result of this was that there was no real midfield, and Bahrain strolled through there at will. Only their profligacy in front of goal saved us. Meanwhile, New Zealand lumped long balls forward to their stranded front three. Smeltz, goal poacher extraordinaire and used to hovering around the goal mouth, looked lost in his position in the "pocket", and struggled to get into the game.

Ironically, there was one area where New Zealand were dominant: their larger physique meant they won almost every header. Much as I'm not a fan of a game based around long balls and set pieces, I have to acknowledge that under some circumstances these are legitimate tactics. Yet playing long balls to target men also requires structure, and relies on there being support coming through from midfield to latch on the balls knocked down or held up by the big men. The ball has to go to ground at some stage, and in this case, numerous hard-won headers simply fell into empty space and were collected by the Bahrainis, who then launched another attack.

New Zealand looked much better in the last twenty minutes when Central Coast Mariners midfielder Michael McGlinchey and West Bromwich Albion wunderkind Chris Brown came on. Hopefully, Herbert will see fit to give at least half a game to these two and move Bertos and Smeltz back to their normal positions. With a more orthodox lineup, a fit Ryan Nelsen, great crowd support, and a bit of luck, the All Whites could still be in with a chance.

In truth, however, even if they win, New Zealand should not be at the World Cup. As I've pointed out in all my posts on qualification for South Africa, the departure of Australia from Oceania has left possibly the easiest pathway to qualification that a team has ever had -- a far cry from the epic road taken by the 1982 New Zealand team that beat Australia and worked their way through a tough Asian qualifying group, getting a shot at qualifying thanks to a stunning 5-0 away win over Saudi Arabia.

In South Africa, we would provide novelty value at best, and would constantly be a striker's good day away from complete humiliation by one of the bigger teams. The best thing for New Zealand football would be for the national side to play in a conference of the Asian zone (as it did in 1982) and get regular games against teams that are tough, but not several classes above. This, along with continued progress by the Wellington Phoenix including perhaps a spot in an Asian champions competition, could provide a solid diet of meaningful competition that would allow players to grow and progress, and the public to be legitimately excited and engaged.

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