Bertos awaits date with destiny
New Zealand are 90 minutes away from securing an historic World Cup berth and winger Leo Bertos has explained to ESPN Soccernet what beating Bahrain in Saturday's play-off would mean for the country.
The one and only time New Zealand featured at the World Cup, Bertos was seven months old. It was way back in 1982, but even then the man who started in the 0-0 first-leg draw in Bahrain was destined to become an All White.
"I was actually born the day New Zealand had a big qualifier against Saudi Arabia (December 20, 1981)," Bertos said. "We had to win 5-0 and my dad wanted to watch it, but mum was in labour and he missed the game - I don't think he was too happy with me."
One more goal and New Zealand would have qualified automatically for Spain '82, but the 5-0 win set up a solitary play-off match against China in neutral Singapore. John Adshead's side won 2-1. Former Werder Bremen striker Wynton Rufer was the star of that side but another key player all those years ago was Ricki Herbert, the man in charge of the national team these days.
And 28 years on, winger Bertos will have a big say in whether the All Whites break that long-standing drought, as they host Bahrain in the second leg of the decisive FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off after a hard-fought 0-0 draw on the road.
The Wellington Phoenix star has a shared experience with Kiwi football fans. With his team never having qualified for the World Cup, in his living memory anyway, he was forced to adopt another nation.
He has vague memories of Italia '90, but it was USA '94 that he remembers like yesterday. "I liked watching Argentina and Brazil and Italy were alright too, but I really enjoyed watching Gabriel Batistuta. My World Cup memories are not of New Zealand, that's for sure," says Bertos, whose father was born on the Greek island of Chios, before moving to New Zealand aged five.
"My dad was a football fan and we used to watch the big games and big tournaments, the Champions League, FA Cup finals and of course World Cups. I never had a country to support so I used to support the best teams.
Bertos, whose five-year stint in the UK was headlined with a successful spell at Rochdale, now has the chance to ensure Kiwi toddlers aren't faced with the same predicament as him and change the face of New Zealand football forever. And should they secure World Cup qualification, a 'thank you' card for Football Federation Australia (FFA) wouldn't be out of the question.
Australia's switch to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has paved the way for New Zealand to dominate the Oceania region, while the birth of the A-League has provided a competitive platform for local players, via the competition's sole NZ team, Wellington Phoenix.
Five of the starters against Bahrain in Manama play for Phoenix, star striker Shane Smeltz only departed for rivals Gold Coast United at the end of last season and, perhaps most significantly, coach Herbert juggles club and national team roles.
"Historically we've always competed with Australia, so them leaving has opened the door for us and makes our path to the World Cup a bit easier," he says. "It's a big move for them and being honest, I guess looking to the long term future, it's something that maybe we should be looking at and maybe it'll happen down the track."
But despite Australia's generosity, Bertos knows that there is have a final hurdle that only New Zealand themselves can overcome - Bahrain. The Gulf nation beat Saudi Arabia in the Asian play-off after finishing third in their group behind Australia and Japan.
Veteran Czech Milan Macala leads a disciplined side that conceded just eight goals in as many group qualifiers, although they netted only six times. Bertos, who played in an unaccustomed right-back role in the first leg, believes his team is nicely placed after coming away with a scoreless draw.
"The plan was to try and contain them and get a result, so a draw if not a cheeky win. The plan worked out, we were defensive minded, the conditions were tough and we held out," Bertos said. "This is a massive opportunity and it's in our own hands. We're at home and they're coming to our turf and we've got to dictate the game. We have to win to go though so we won't be as defensive minded as we were, we'll play our game and go from there."
The crowd is certain to play a part in the return leg, with Wellington's 34,000-capacity Westpac Stadium already sold out. Bertos added: "Football fans in New Zealand, not just Wellington, can be very vocal, they're like European fans and I know the Yellow Fever (the Phoenix supporters club) will really get into it. They'll be the core and I expect most of the crowd will join them.
"The stadium fits 34,000 and they're even trying to squeeze in extra seats by the pitch because it's an oval shaped ground. It's going to be intimidating for Bahrain, every time they touch the ball, the crowd will be on their back."
So what would World Cup qualification mean to NZ? "It's everything. Our World Cup is getting to the World Cup, it always has been. The only time we did it was in '82 and that's all anyone and everyone talks about in NZ and while it's always nice to have that, it would be nice to talk about a current one.
"Looking at the bigger picture, it would change the game. It would inject some much-needed finance into our federation, which has struggled in the last few years, and they can start putting that money into development, starting academies and getting good coaches here as well as start developing our own coaches.
"It's about laying foundations like Australia has since they qualified in 2006. They've done very well and it's having a knock-on effect."
As for the game itself, Herbert's team appears to be shaping up nicely. Ryan Nelsen is performing well with Blackburn Rovers, Smeltz is the A-League's top scorer while Bertos is one of many players enjoying another solid season. But the latter says it is not the so-called big guns who will decide New Zealand's World Cup destiny.
"We need everyone to be on their game. They (Nelsen and Smeltz) make the extra difference but it's not just Shane or Ryan who are going to get us through to the World Cup - we've been without one if not both at times and we've got through," Bertos concludes.
"Bahrain are a dangerous team, they've got some quality so it's not going to be an easy game by any stretch.
"We haven't always been the best football side to watch but we all dig in, and we need all that grit and determination that's got us this far and will hopefully get us past this hurdle. It would really nice to get to the World Cup, it's been my dream as a kid."