New Zealand is back at the World Cup following a 28-year absence as the All Whites capitalized on Australia’s move to Asia by winning their Oceania section and then defeating Bahrain in a two-legged play-off back in November. They enter the tournament as huge underdogs and anything positive that they can achieve in Group F alongside Italy, Paraguay, and Slovakia will be considered a superb achievement. Getting to the tournament was the goal and anything extra in South Africa will seen as a success. But, with nothing to lose could New Zealand spring a surprise or two?
TALE OF THE TAPE
FIFA Ranking: 78th
World Cup Appearances: 1 (1982)
World Cup Record (W-D-L): 0-0-3
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage
Road To South Africa: Oceania Qualifier, Defeated Bahrain in Play-off
Nearly half the squad to be selected for the World Cup will have plied their trade in the Australian A-League. This bodes well for the side as they will have players who are used to playing at a high level. Another positive for the All Whites is that there is no pressure on the team for this World Cup. Therefore, be prepared to see a team play freely and without the burden of expectation. Finally, this is arguably the best New Zealand squad ever in terms of talent, skill, and depth. There is a good mix of domestic talent in addition to a handful who have been able to make it in Europe.
While this is perhaps the most accomplished group of New Zealand players of all time, the names on the teamsheet won’t strike fear into the heart of any opposing team. New Zealand are an inconsistent team who have the habit of giving up lots of goals when playing against top opposition. Even against Bahrain in the play-off to qualify for the World Cup the team struggled at times and perhaps had a good degree of luck not to have conceded. Though they competed in the Confederations Cup last year, the players are inexperienced when it comes to the grand stage like the World Cup.
Ricki Herbert is the first ever native coach of the New Zealand national team. He has made history by leading the team to the 2010 World Cup as he is now the only man to have played and coached a New Zealand team at the World Cup Finals as he was a defender for the 1982 New Zealand team.
Herbert took over the side in 2005 and is a popular figure in New Zealand for the football success he has achieved. Herbert also coaches A-League side Wellington Phoenix which means that he works regularly with many of the players he will take to the World Cup.
The Key Men
Ryan Nelsen is the rock in the heart of the New Zealand defense. The 32-year-old Blackburn center-back has enjoyed a successful career abroad, first in Major League Soccer (MLS) and then in the English Premier League. Captain at Blackburn, Nelsen is a natural leader and the man who needs to keep it tight at the back.
While Nelsen will help New Zealand from conceding, the Kiwis’ best chance for goals this summer will come in the form of Gold Coast United striker Shane Smeltz. Recently crowned A-League Golden Boot winner with 19 goals in 26 matches, the German-born Smeltz has a superb career strike rate at the international level with 15 tallies in 27 matches.
While New Zealand don’t have the ability to play teams off the park with their skill level, the intangible that the team do possess is a fighting spirit second to none. They narrowly lost 4-3 to Italy last year and though Bahrain put them under intense pressure during periods of their play-off the squad held their nerve and kept battling. If Italy, Paraguay, and Slovakia are not careful this is a team that on their day could give them a real dogfight.
The Key Match
While the opening match against Slovakia will be the one that determines whether this side might have a chance to turn some heads, it is the next match against Italy which will arguably be the showcase match for all New Zealanders. A World Cup tie against the reigning champions is a mouth-watering affair and surely a match that will put New Zealand football in the spotlight on the world stage.
Why You Should Watch Them
Underdogs who punch above their weight, you get the sense that in a World Cup primed for a few upsets, that this batch of relatively unknown players may produce a performance to shock the world. The fighting spirit and good mix of experience and youth suggests that we won’t see the blowouts some are predicting.
Guest Panelist: Chris Smith, New Zealand Football Fan
Chris Told One Game, One World:
“New Zealand now has a class of players in the team they never had before and those players will be around for another 4 years so it’s not beyond the realms of thought to think about Brazil for this team in 2014. Ryan Nelsen at the back and captain is proven quality and Simon Elliott in the middle has left his imprint in the MLS and also at Fulham. Elsewhere there is the grit of Ben Sigmund, pedigree of Ivan Vicelich, heroics of Mark Paston in goal, silkiness of Leo Bertos out wide and up front, a gaggle of strikers in A-League golden boot Shane Smeltz, Rory Fallon, Chris Killen and youngster Chris Wood.
There is however a lack of an international class box to box midfielder. They have the spots filled up front, out wide, at the back (including the arrival of Ipswich’s Tommy Smith and FC Midtjyllands Winston Reid) but it’s right in the middle of the pitch they will fall. Vice captain Tim Brown and Simon Elliott are good, but not world class and I think this is where teams will try to target the All Whites in the engine room. That and sheer pace and ball movement that these players may not be used to. This team’s showings also rest on the sometimes injured Nelsen and his ability to stay fit throughout the World Cup.
When we talk about New Zealand’s chances at the World Cup, we have to understand this is only in relation to moving out of the group stage because they will not be contenders. Period. While this would rate as one of the best All Whites teams in terms of players across the park in the last 20 years, this team needs a lot of luck. Slovakia is the game where all the eggs are in the basket for a result and we pray for a little something against Paraguay. The heart says we pinch a result against Slovakia and are competitive against Paraguay, the head says we finish last with no wins and some brave showings.”
One Game, One World Final Say
Our guest panelist covered things pretty well, though getting out of this deceivingly tricky group could be a couple steps too far this side. This is a team that should be fun to watch and one will expect performances full of commitment and spirit. That however probably won’t be enough for the knockout rounds, if it was then we’ll be talking about one of the World Cup’s greatest ever shocks.
Can New Zealand beat the odds and qualify from Group F? Drop us a comment and let us know what you think about the All-Whites!