2010 was a significant year for the New Zealand national team. Not only did the All White's qualify for their second World Cup, a major achievement in itself, they left the tournament as the only unbeaten team. Reporting from Auckland, IBWM welcomes Fernando Battaglia.
Twenty to 30 years from now, we will look back on 2010 as the year in which football truly arrived in New Zealand.
And I do mean "football", a term recently restored to its proper sport by New Zealand Football's name change from "New Zealand Soccer". We're not talking rugby or league anymore. All of a sudden, a nation that was All Black is suddenly dressed in All White.
Technically it all goes back to the end of 2009, when the All Whites qualified for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa with a header from Plymouth Argyle's Rory Fallon and a penalty save from emerging goalkeeper Mark Paston. At the time, it seemed like the culmination of the work of the past three year by manager Ricki Herbert. Little did we know it was only the beginning.
What followed were two events that took New Zealand football to the next level. First, the Wellington Phoenix -- the only professional football team in New Zealand -- were within a game of making the A-League Grand Final and bowed out against Sydney FC 4-2 under somewhat controversial circumstances (Sydney striker Chris Payne handled the ball into the Phoenix net for a 2-1 lead, which his team never relinquished).
It nevertheless represented the best-ever finish for a kiwi side in the Australian top division. The Phoenix are the third entry in top division Australian football, following the defunct Soccer Kingz -- yes, with a "z" -- and New Zealand Knights). And it ratcheted up expectations for the following season as the Phoenix began to build on a base of astute free agent signings and young up-and-coming kiwi footballers, interspersed with All Whites veterans such as Tim Brown and Leo Bertos.
In December, semi-professional club Auckland City FC -- champions of the Oceania Football Confederation -- won the first ever match in the FIFA Club World Cup by defeated host club Al-Ahli of the United Arab Emirates 2-0, and following a 0-3 loss to Mexico's Atlante, defeated African champions TP Mazembe of Congo DR 3-2 to finish 5th. The only time a team from Oceania has ever reached anything but last place in that competition.
Following that, New Zealand defeated Serbia 1-0 in a World Cup warm-up match. Serbia was ranked 15th in the FIFA rankings at the time and became the highest-ranked opponent that the All Whites defeated.
Then, in June, New Zealand raised more than a few eyebrows at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Not only did they not finish last in their group, they also gained their first ever point, drew against defending champions Italy and eventual quarterfinalists Paraguay and became the only team in the entire competition to finish undefeated.
Yes, you read that right: undefeated. Not even champions Spain can claim that.
New Zealand drew all three of their first round matches, 1-1 against Slovakia and Italy and 0-0 against Paraguay. Three points were not enough to qualify them to next round (Paraguay won the group on 5 points, followed by Slovakia on 4) but they finished ahead of Italy and left a relatively positive impression with their effort and desire, if not necessarily with their football skill.
The man most responsible for this incredible turnaround is Ricki Herbert, manager of both the Phoenix and the All Whites, whose long-term projects have truly born fruit this year. I say turnaround, because 4 years ago, the NZ Knights were going broke and beginning their last season in the A-League and New Zealand was watching the 2006 from home because they had lost the Oceania qualifying final to Solomon Islands (Solomon-bloody-Islands!). Solomon Islands went on to lose a playoff to Bahrain, who lost a playoff to Trinidad and Tobago, who went to the World Cup. T&T is smaller than New Zealand, as is Solomon Islands, so the "we're a small island nation with few players' excuses rang especially hollow.
This weekend, the Wellington Phoenix kickoff their A-League season against Gold Coast United and are hoping to continue to build on their fantastic last 12 months. That would mean at least a playoff appearance, and the team's goal is to do one better than last season and actually reach the Grand Final in 2011.
To that end, they've added a few key players to the squad. Such as Aussie forwards Dylan McAllister and Mirjan Pavlovic (currently a member of the U-17to give the team a bit more firepower up front, Argentine midfielder Roberto Cornejo to enhance creativity and link up play between defence and the attackers from the middle of the pitch and Socceroo defender Jade North, recently returned from a year's spell with Tromsø IL in Denmark.
Add to that the return of World Cup heroes’ midfielders Bertos and Brown (who did not play in the World Cup due to injury but usually deputised for Ryan Nelsen as team captain), goalkeeper Paston, and defenders Tony Lochhead and Ben Sigmund. Add captain Andrew Durante leading the back line and Paul Ifil and Chris Greenacre, experienced performers from the English Leagues and Championship, brought in last year and you have a team with a strong amount of experience and a greater diversity of talent than ever before.
If the Phoenix achieve their goal of a Grand Final appearance in 2011, the sport will continue to grow in New Zealand. Already it's become a significant challenger to rugby union for most kiwi boys under the age of 18 and there is some concern that the interest may be big enough to actually harm rugby's position as the dominating top sport in NZ.
That moment is still a long, long way away, as evidenced by the reaction to each win or loss by the All Blacks, especially in a year (2011) when the Rugby World Cup will be played in New Zealand. But history may prove that 2010 was the year in which football finally began to grow in New Zealand from a niche, immigrant pursuit into a sport followed by the majority.
Fernando will be writing regularly for IBWM, but if you'd like to read more from him, please visit his blog.