a-league focus

Phoenix hold All Whites in good stead

October 27, 2009
By John Iannantuono
(Archive)

It has been extraordinarily windy in Melbourne the past few weeks. In Spring, southeasterly winds are usually accompanied by a fresh crispness, but lately there's been another scent in the air; a scent that usually dies somewhere out in the Tasman.

Wellington get the joy of six during their amazing demolition of Gold Coast United
GettyImages / MartyMelvilleWellington get the joy of six during their amazing demolition of Gold Coast United

It has been an incredible month for New Zealand football. The All Whites, the national team, stand on the cusp of World Cup qualification for the first time since 1982, having gained the upper hand in the first leg against Bahrain with an away 0-0 draw in Manama. Their date with destiny resumes in three weeks' time in front of a sold out crowd at Westpac Stadium.

Given the lack of success New Zealand has had in the world game, the excitement levels are understandable. It wasn't exactly that long ago when Australia were in the same boat.

Historically, New Zealand's national team hasn't been renowned for its presence on the world stage. Yes, there was the solitary World Cup appearance in '82, however it has been a long, long time between drinks for New Zealand football since then.

That trend has continued with its clubs (Football Kingz, NZ Knights and currently Wellington Phoenix) who, since 1999, have tried to conquer Australia's top flight, only to flounder year after year.

In fact, none of the above clubs has ever really threatened the pointy end of the league ladder in either the old National Soccer League or A-League.

In the days of the NSL, the first NZ club to dabble in Australian club football was the Football Kingz. Under the tutelage of New Zealand's finest ever player, Oceania Player of the Century Wynton Rufer, the Kingz gathered some interest with a few eye-catching performances. However, once Rufer left the club after their second season in the NSL, the Kingz went from consecutive 8th-placed finishes to league-dwelling regulars. And since then, the Knights, and now the Phoenix, have continued the legacy.

It is no surprise that the safest bet in Australian football has been on a NZ team not making the finals. But change is definitely in the air.

During the current A-League campaign, the Phoenix have threatened to free themselves from their shackles, however the key has consistently snapped in the keyhole. At the weekend, one shackle managed to loosen as the Phoenix did the unimaginable by smashing Jason Culina's Gold Coast United to the tune of 6-0.

As the commentator boasted as the final whistle blew, it was a record performance for a New Zealand club side competing in an Australian league. No other team from New Zealand had won by such a margin, or scored so many goals in a single game. It was undoubtedly the best performance ever by a team from across the Tasman.

Not even Nostradamus himself would have predicted that win, never mind the scoreline, however the signs have been there that this side has the potential to do something special. With Phoenix's A-League counterparts all still within touching distance in the table, fans are daring to dream that Ricki Herbert's men could indeed do what no other New Zealand outfit before has managed to - make the finals.

Again, the scent is in the air, but it's all connected - or stemming - from the one source: the national team. You see, a successful NZ national team means a successful Phoenix, and vice versa. The Phoenix has no fewer than six national team players in their ranks. They're also coached by Ricki Herbert - coach of the All Whites.

With the Phoenix boasting the nucleus of the national team, success in the Yellow and Black will translate to success in the All White strip. Well, in theory anyway. The Phoenix are on course to change the fortunes of a New Zealand club in Australian football.

And on November 14, its players and coach will have the opportunity to change the fortunes of its national team against Bahrain.