New Zealand to build on Australian experience
New Zealand football is building towards one of its biggest ever nights, as the must-win second leg of the World Cup play-off with Bahrain approaches. In fact, based on the experience of neighbour Australia exactly four years ago, the game could prove to be the undisputed "most important date" in the history of the Pacific country.
On November 16, 2005, Australia eliminated Uruguay in a dramatic penalty shootout to progress to their first World Cup finals in decades, a feat New Zealand can repeat with victory over Bahrain.
Now, New Zealand are NOT Australia, and readers from the land of the long white cloud wouldn't forgive us if we implied as such. But the parallels between Australia's night of nights and what the All Whites face are many, meaning New Zealanders can draw from Australia's experience in bracing for what to expect on Saturday evening.
Australia's defeat of Uruguay has gone down in Socceroo folklore as a truly defining point for the sport of football in that nation. It's one of those dates that fans remember off the tops of their heads, a match that players acclaim in chorus as their career highlight. Only after a 32-year absence from football's biggest stage, and countless moments of qualifying heartbreak, could a triumph be as euphoric and memorable as it was for the Aussies that night.
Now New Zealand are presented with the opportunity to create their own watershed football moment. In a country where, like Australia, football is not the No.1 sport, the future growth of the game in New Zealand can only be accelerated in the short term by an appearance at the globe's greatest sporting showcase. It's not often that the prospects of an entire sport in a country would rely on 90 (or 120) minutes of football.
That all-defining match, with its all defining moments, is a thing of movie scripts. It's what makes football great. To have so much riding on a match, or a moment; the fear of failure and all its depressing gloom, is what makes success, if it comes, so glorious. Just ask John Aloisi, scorer of Australia's winning penalty in 2005, who will forever be remembered as the man who kicked his nation to the World Cup.
All the talk out of the All Whites camp rings out as though they are aware of the scale and significance of what is in front of them. Captain Ryan Nelsen and coach Ricki Herbert fronted media in an upbeat mood this week, their demeanour hinting they were more than aware of the pressure of the situation but enjoying - rightly - every moment of the ride.
"There is nothing bigger," said Nelsen, of England's Blackburn Rovers. "It's bigger than the Olympics 100 metres final ... I've just put a bit more pressure on us haven't I? It's no ordinary game. When it comes down to it, when you're kicking the ball around with your mates when you're 10 years old, you dream about this situation."
Herbert, who played in New Zealand's one and only previous campaign in the 1982 finals, said the match has "captured the imagination" of a lot of people, including many "non-football" people.
"It's the biggest sporting event in the world and to be able to be part of that is something that is very exciting," he said. "We want to deliver another World Cup opportunity for the country. We have got a great balanced side. There is a lot of experience and there is a lot of feeling around that."
One of the many threads of interest in the build-up has been the capacity at the Westpac Stadium - or "Caketin" as it's known - where 1000 extra seats have been installed to meet the overwhelming demand for tickets. The expected 35,500 attendance will be the largest ever for a football match in New Zealand, meaning at least some history will be written regardless of the result.
That football headlines have started leapfrogging rugby union ones, and that interest has reached the wider public rather than just the football-loving minority as Herbert says, will delight the diehards. Fans there will be bemoaning unknowledgeable media types flinging themselves onto the bandwagon - when, on another day, it would be seen as a forward step for football just to receive some decent airtime in the mainstream.
Of course, all the similarities between New Zealand's position and that of their trans-Tasman friends one cycle earlier don't guarantee that the Kiwis will be successful too. Indeed, Australia went through a series of painful exits at the intercontinental play-off stage, including one against Uruguay four years before revenge was had in Sydney. There was media hype and high expectations each time, but Australia still fell at the final hurdle, over and over again.
Those losses contributed to a downward slide for football in Australia that led to a total reform of the game, which in turn saw a new competition, the A-League, launched, and Australia admitted into the Asian confederation. The 2005 result coincided with these landmark achievements – the timing was just right, and the planets aligned.
Once again, you could say the same for the timing of this match in New Zealand and, strangely, its fate is tied in real terms to Australia today. Club football in New Zealand is at somewhat of a crossroads, with its sole full professional club - Wellington Phoenix, of the A-League - under fire for its unique status as belonging to a league in a different confederation. Wellington players form the core of the New Zealand national team squad, which is angering Asian football chiefs. After all, that means Australia, as a member of Asia, has been indirectly assisting Asia's intercontinental competitor.
At international level, New Zealand's future is unsure. Its Oceania confederation is pitifully weak, especially since Australia left, raising debate about whether it should simply be folded into Asia, or grouped with a new East Asian zone along with the creation of a West Asian zone. That discussion is for another day, but there's no doubt a World Cup finals appearance would give New Zealand invaluable credibility and political sway in any future decisions on the club or national teams involved.
However, the impact of the other competitor in this drama, the Bahrainis, cannot be understated. The tiny Middle Eastern nation is bidding for its first World Cup finals berth after going out controversially at this point at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago last time. If they were to qualify, it would undoubtedly be a fairytale story of its own. And that sums up the joys of football. For every winner, there is a loser. The higher the stakes, the more emphatic the win ... or the more soul-shattering the loss.