Rufer: No pressure on New Zealand
Unless you have been fixed to the TV screen watching re-runs of Two and a Half Men, you will have noticed a new nation being added to the world football map: New Zealand.
On the international stage New Zealand qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years, while domestically, Wellington Phoenix broke a New Zealand hoodoo by appearing in a finals series of an Australian league competition.
Wynton Rufer, New Zealand's greatest ever football export and FIFA Oceania Player of the Century, spoke to Soccernet about the current highs surrounding NZ football and the country's chances this June in South Africa.
New Zealand qualified for their first World Cup finals in 28 years, Wellington Phoenix became the first New Zealand team to appear in the A-League finals series - the game must be going off the chart in New Zealand?
There's been a bit of an explosion with football over the last six months, with the All Whites qualifying [for the 2010 World Cup] and of course the Phoenix had the brilliant run to the semi-finals of the A-League. We can't complain, that's for sure. The game is on fire at the moment, the place is buzzing!
Did you ever expect that to be the case; that is, a domestic league game attracting in excess of 30,000 fans?
Definitely, that's why I came back. I came back to help build the game and I've been doing it for 13 years. [NZ clubs] showed some potential at the start when the first New Zealand team got into the National Soccer League. We were getting crowds around the 10,000-15,000 mark for a couple of the games, so the potential was always there. It's all about winning, as you know. Sport is about winning, and once you start winning, everyone is interested, it doesn't matter what sport it is.
So, can crowds to the tune of 20,000 become a regular scene at Phoenix home matches next season?
It's going to be a tough act to follow. No one expected them to get that far [last season]… and the fact that they got so far was a bit of a surprise. You have to think about the Gold Coast; the last two games of the season they lost them and up until that point they were in contention for the Minor Premiership. With Gold Coast falling over, that benefitted the Phoenix's season as it made a big difference having a home semi-final. They've performed way beyond expectation, which is absolutely brilliant, but to follow it up next year is going to be very tough.
What's been the difference between the Phoenix and other NZ clubs that have competed in Australian domestic leagues?
Consistency and money. This is the first time that any team in New Zealand has had any proper budget. None of the teams before that had a proper budget to work with because they were put in there by well-meaning people but they just didn't have the dollars to back it up.
In many respects, New Zealand is experiencing the same hype and opportunities that Australia did in 2006. Are you confident that New Zealand Football (NZF) can capitalise on the flow-on effects provided from World Cup qualification?
I'll be honest and say no, I'm not confident. With the history of the people who run the show here, you need someone like [Wellington Phoenix owner] Terry Serepisos to be chairman of NZF. Just like Australia has Frank Lowy, he's a big gun. You need these types of people to lead your organisation. No disrespect to [current NZF chairman] Frank van Hattum, he was a great goalkeeper and a World Cup squad member in 1982, but he doesn't have the pulling power that these big guns have, and that's what you need in the political arena. The dollars combined with that political power makes the difference… I hope that they get it right but I honestly have my doubts.
Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia. That's a tough group. How do you rate New Zealand's chances?
Well, not as tough as Australia! I think the draw isn't bad. The expectation is low and our secret weapon, Ryan Nelsen, is injured at the moment, so by the time he gets back into it he'll be nice and fresh. I think there's a big chance that they can sneak a result in the first game [against Slovakia]. There's no expectation whatsoever on New Zealand, so they can just go in and enjoy it as there's nothing to lose. All the pressure is on Slovakia, and the way the draw has panned out, I think it's brilliant for New Zealand.
It appears as though Ricki Herbert will deploy a defensive setup and is toying with a 5-3-2 formation. Some have criticised the defensive setup, yet it appears to be a logical approach…
There are two things there. The first is that's how Ricki Herbert plays anyway, so he's coming from a controlled defensive system. Number two: we're not Brazil. It's fairly obvious the way you have to play if you're the coach of the New Zealand team. It's the same for the coach of the Honduras team - they're another minnow.
New Zealand will play Australia on May 24 at the MCG. Are you pleased to see the rivalry between these two neighbours renewed?
Australia is in a different league to New Zealand, and that's fine, it's just brilliant that New Zealand has that opportunity to play against Australia. The sporting rivalry between the two countries is huge, so it's absolutely brilliant. We've had some fairly good build-up games and it's such an exciting time, just to be able to play those big games against big nations like Australia. New Zealand have got a couple of other big guns they're going to play against before the World Cup, so that's really positive.
You spent many years playing in Germany so you know their style of football quite well. What does Australia have to do to beat Germany in their World Cup opener?
If anyone can [beat Germany], it can be maybe a Dutch coach as there's a massive rivalry between Germany and Holland. On their day, Australia can beat any team in the world, so it's going to be good. [Playing Germany first] is a great opportunity; Australia has a big chance. Germany always seems to get through, they're a tournament team, but Australia could get a draw or even sneak in a win and it wouldn't surprise me.
Finally, Wynton, there's been a lot of talk regarding New Zealand following in Australia's footsteps and becoming part of the Asian Football Confederation. Is this the best move for New Zealand football?
To be honest, we don't hear much about that over on this side of the woods, and that political stuff I don't give too many opinions about. It's a bit of a miracle really how Frank Lowy made it happen for Australia, but again, it's a different ball game. He's a very wealthy guy and politically connected, so it doesn't surprise me. We don't have that in New Zealand in the current leadership, so I can't see it happening to be honest.