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football fever: bahrain vs. new zealand

October 7, 2009

On Sunday morning at 4.30am New Zealand time, New Zealand’s national football team (known as the ‘All Whites’, in stark contrast to the ‘All Blacks’) will be kicking off the first leg of their World Cup Qualifying Play-Off against Bahrain in Manama. This is, quite frankly, a huge deal for football in NZ. They have only qualified for one previous World Cup (Espana ’82), but to reach South Africa would really put football on the map in this part of the world.

As an Englishman living in NZ, I enjoy a sort of friendly rivalry with the Kiwis usually. They’re far too cocky when it comes to their rugby team, and so it’s always amusing when they lose. When it comes to football however, I’m very much sympathetic to their cause. I want them to reach the World Cup because it will help football in this country emerge from the (significant) shadow of the egg chasers.

It’s a testament really to the power of football that I’m already feeling a little bit of nervous-excitement about the match on Sunday. I really can’t overstate how significant this match could be, and for the passionate minority of football fans in this country, it’s an opportunity that is unlikely to come around again. Football in neighbouring and highly influential Australia is going from strength to strength after they appeared in the last WC, and the A-League is going from strength to strength.

I’m excited about this match because I have felt a certain sense of withdrawal from football culture in the four and a bit years I’ve lived here. Growing up as a football obsessive in England it was natural that I felt saturated by the beautiful game on all sides. Football was everywhere I turned, and that was how I liked it. Here though, I take solace in the internet. Few of my friends are into football and of them, not many are knowledgeable enough about the game to have a truly stimulating chat with. The sort of chat that back in England was just known as ‘chemistry class’.

On a personal level then, I’ve got a lot invested in the outcome of this match. As an aspiring football writer I’d like one day to be able to make my living commentating on the beautiful game in this country. At present, that is an impossible dream, but I feel that if NZ qualify and football takes off, it could happen at the right time for me. But this match, as I’ve said, is far bigger than that. It could change the face of sport in NZ.

For the first time since I’ve been living in New Zealand, the attention of the sporting public seems, just for now, to be shifting away from the rugby, away from the netball, away from the cricket. The ‘All Whites’ in Bahrain are now starting to draw some attention. It’s their brief moment in the sun (figuratively as well as literally), and if they can take it with both hands, then things could change for sport in this country.

Of course, football will never surpass rugby here. Ask anyone around the world what they associate with New Zealand and the ‘All Blacks’ would most likely be pipped only by the Lord of the Rings. Rugby isn’t a religion here in the same way that football is in England, but it’s as close as you’ll get. Everything is sold using the ‘All Blacks’, I often think that if they spent less time filming commercials and more time training they might actually win a World Cup.

But football is more powerful than rugby at capturing peoples attention. I don’t know why it is, but the evidence is clear for all to see. I wrote an article about this qualification attempt recently and suggested that the FIFA World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, perhaps second only to the Olympics. I believe the WC is actually bigger, but I was trying to be democratic. Then I got lots of comments saying that there’s no way that the Olympics are as big as the World Cup. Point proven?

If NZ can make it to the World Cup then they, like the rest of the world, will soon be hooked on the sport. Football is dangerously addictive, it can take over your life and ruin your marriage, but it’s a wonderful sport that also brings people together. New Zealand aren’t really a part of that at present, but they soon could be. I hope that they soon are. All that stands between them and the World Cup is Bahrain. But that’s where things get complicated.

Established as Asia’s fifth place team by virtue of winning a playoff against Saudi Arabia, Bahrain doesn’t sound like a particularly challenging opponent on the surface. Populated by an estimated 791,000 people it is a tiny Kingdom in the Persian Gulf and their side has never made it to a World Cup – they were edged out by Trinidad & Tobago at this stage last time around.

Don’t be fooled though, because despite New Zealand having a population roughly 5 times greater than that of their Asian opposition, they are ranked 36 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings, their 100th place compared to Bahrain’s 64th. Indeed, Bahrain outrank tournament hosts South Africa by nine places and given that at the Confederations Cup over the Summer South Africa humbled NZ with ease by two goals to nil, the Kiwis certainly face a big test.

Even taking the FIFA rankings with the hefty pinch of salt that they require then, Bahrain enter this play-off as firm favourites to reach South Africa next year. Despite this though, the footballing public in New Zealand retains a reasonable amount of optimism that their side can defy the odds and make it to a second World Cup. That the second leg is in Wellington is a big advantage, the deciding match played in front of a passionate Kiwi crowd could play a big part.

More than that though, the Kiwis have a surprisingly good side on paper, given their poor ranking. Ryan Nelsen, their celebrated captain, has established himself as a Premier League player with Blackburn Rovers while others like Rory Fallon and Chris Killen play in the English Championship and Scottish Premiership respectively. They also have Shane Smeltz, the A-League’s top marksman by some distance and a player tipped by some to earn a crack at a more high profile league sometime soon.

Perhaps more importantly though, no fewer than six of the team’s players all play for Wellington Phoenix in the A-League, where they are managed by national team coach Ricki Herbert. This gives them a great sense of familiarity and a sense of camaraderie that is rare if not unique among national football teams and means that many of their players have an excellent understanding of how each other play.

Indeed, there’s certainly an argument that suggests that NZ’s poor World Ranking is somewhat misleading. Because they are a part of the Oceania qualifying region, the only significant matches they play at home are against the likes of Fiji and Vanuatu – very poor opposition. This gives them little benefit in the weighted FIFA ranking system, and matches against better quality opposition are almost always played away from home due to NZ’s remote location.

This means that in matches where they have chance to prove themselves against a higher calibre opponent and thus earn some serious ranking points, they are almost always forced to do so away from home, making such a victory an even more unlikely occurence. Indeed, NZ at home are a relatively unknown quantity and because of that, they may well be underestimated – something that would certainly please Ricki Herbert.

Looking at the stats then, one could be forgiven for thinking that Bahrain should ease past New Zealand and into the World Cup next year. I’m not so sure though. I’ll admit here and now that my knowledge of Bahraini football is little-none, but NZ aren’t as bad as they appear. Their squad does have a certain amount of quality, as well as a very experienced coach with experience of this sort of pressurised match and the added bonus of knowing each other almost inside out.

So looking ahead to Sunday morning, it’s fair to say I approach the game with more excitement than nerves. The away leg will be crucial and an away goal would be a massive prize indeed, but if the All Whites can keep things tight in Manama then they will return to Wellington’s Ring of Fire with their World Cup dreams very much alive, and the face of sport in New Zealand preparing for a lift.

This is the sort of thing that makes football so valuable and so popular. The World Cup is still almost a year away and for me personally with England safely qualified, there should be little to play for. However, football has bound me together with many other passionate Kiwis who desperately want to see their side represented at the World’s biggest sporting event, and that football has the power to bring us together, to make me think of the All Whites as ‘us’ and to change the future of sport in this country justifies all the time and effort we spend writing about the sport on this site.

Best of luck to New Zealand’s All Whites on Sunday morning, and bring on SA2010.

Like this? There’s plenty more where that came from at They Think It’s All Over…

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil permalink
    October 7, 2009 10:20 am

    Thanks for this article. This is a very important time for so many nations as it really comes down to the crunch for the remaining WC spots. Unfortunately my nation is slowly moving down the rankings, and more importantly is losing quality throughout it’s footballing setup (Scotland). I envy the opportunity to get so excited and nervous about my national team, especially in such a make or break game.

    Bahrain have never qualified for the WC so either way the result will be a good one for world football. Good luck, and may the best team win.

  2. October 7, 2009 11:40 am

    Respect to Kiwis.

    I was hoping to see you take the Champions Trophy but getting to the final was no small feat.

    Best of Luck to you.

    And Come on Eireann!

  3. Tokyo permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:57 pm

    Thanks for the article, my Kiwi friends here have done nothing to fill me in on the current state of their side.

    The way Bahrain cocked up last time vs T & T gives me hope NZ can make it to S Africa.

  4. October 7, 2009 6:09 pm

    Well I certainly hope NZ makes it to the WC. I follow a bit of the A-League (Perth Glory in particular since I lived for a while there before )and I’d like to see Shane Smeltz get a crack at some world superpowers. I get the same feeling of optimism that Australia had before the Kewells and Vidukas of this world were household names, circa 1997 when they played Iraq in a playoff to qualify for France 98.

    The people were excited, and it was a first for me to see Aussie rules and Cricket take a backseat, and even non-Socceroo fans were excited about the playoffs. Hopefully though NZ does one better than the Socceroos did as they choked in the 2nd leg at home and Iraq went on to play in WC98.

  5. October 23, 2009 8:25 am

    I just discovered your match preview for the first play off match (rather late and based on a google of anything with New Zealand and Bahrain). Its good. Im impressed by your knowledge of the squad and the perhaps misleading nature of our ranking.

    If you do a preview for the Wellington game I will make sure to give it some profile on our website – http://www.yellowfever.co.nz

    But because there is a good chance Ill forget to check your blog feel free to visit the site and place a link to any football blogs you write. It will definitely get picked up by one of the moderators.

    • October 24, 2009 8:51 am

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for your comment on my NZ-Bahrain preview :)

      I’ve got an account over at Yellow Fever and get on there most days but only post occasionally. I’ll definitely be writing a preview for the home leg closer to the 14th either on WDKF.co.uk again or at my own site. I’ll try and remember to flick you an email when I get round to writing it!

      Cheers,

      Adam.

  6. November 14, 2009 1:18 pm

    Congrats to New Zealand!

Trackbacks

  1. WDKF Wednesday: Football Fever – Bahrain vs. Nz « They Think It's All Over…

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