As footballing ambassadors for New Zealand in the English Premier League, Blackburn Rovers' Ryan Nelson and West Ham United's Winston Reid are finding themselves in demand. On the other side of the globe. Fernando Battaglia continues his look at football with a Kiwi angle.
With two international friendlies planned in New Zealand during October, the All Whites' 2010 football success may actually mean that Kiwis will get to see more of their national team, but less of their top players. At least, that's the way New Zealand and Blackburn Rovers captain Ryan Nelsen sees it.
This past week, Nelsen spoke to the English press about the possibility of returning to New Zealand on a regular basis to play friendlies. Not only should we expect to see little of Ryan, but defender Winston Reid would also be better served to stay in England, at West Ham, according to Nelsen.
New Zealand Football (NZF) is adamant in its desire to establish a strong football programme. Looking very much at its neighbours across the Tasman Sea, NZ wants what Australia has achieved: global recognition as a competitive football country. So far, they've achieved their first, and only mildly ambitious, aims: qualification to the FIFA World Cup and decent on-pitch performance at the international level. They've even managed to increase the number of Kiwi representatives in the Premier League, with Reid's purchase by West Ham United and Chris Wood's presence in the West Bromwich Albion side that were promoted from the Championship for this season.
Hoping to continue this development, NZF is adamant that it must maintain a strong international presence by playing friendlies during every available FIFA window, and therein they have run into a problem not unknown to the Aussies: the availability of top players.
The head of NZF Michael Glading wants international friendlies played in every FIFA window, including at least one home game every year, and wants players released for that purpose. And he is perfectly happy to go to FIFA to demand those releases.
Glading was quoted in the Sunday Star Times as saying: "We will insist they release players, but by the same token, we are conscious not to overcook it. [Manager] Ricki [Herbert]'s comment to me was that there will be entire squad rotation."
No doubt, Herbert will want to use these matches to take a look at some younger, local players to determine their viability for qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Players such as Christchurch's Aaron Clapham or Newcastle Jets' Jeremy Brockie could be instrumental in making it to Brazil when injuries strike and players become unavailable for international selection.
Funnily enough, the argument so far hasn't been between NZF and English clubs, but rather through quotes in press reports between Nelsen and Glading. Nelsen's presence at these friendlies was always going to be unlikely, given his injury history, but it was his comments about Winston Reid that have upset the NZF. Winston Reid will be a better player playing week in and week out in the Premier League rather than risking his position for a friendly." Incidentally, West Ham have already cleared Reid to play in the October matches, and Nelsen has given a very hesitant "yes" to his presence for the next friendlies.
Nelsen is better acquainted than most about the physical toll of a mid-week jaunt down under for match only to return the highly demanding pace and strength of the Premier League. And there is an additional reason for Nelsen's point-of-view, not just from personal experience. Last year, Rory Fallon left a Plymouth Argyle club battling relegation in the Championship (a fight they eventually lost) to participate in New Zealand's qualifiers versus Bahrain. Upon his return, Fallon was left off the squad for several weeks. Fallon is now in League One and Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith plays the Championship. Teams in those divisions are less likely than their Premier League counterparts to want to give up their players for international duty, due to a higher number of matches to be played and a general lack of squad depth in those divisions.
The two friendlies planned in October -- Oct. 9 versus Honduras in Auckland and Oct 12 versus Paraguay in Wellington -- should generate a decent amount of buzz, even with the Commonwealth Games being played during that time. That fact may actually help, as there should be a wave of patriotic support for the All Whites in appreciation of their strong FIFA World Cup run. Two losses in those matches, however, could mean that the carefully constructed bandwagon for football in New Zealand could come crashing down before anyone gets to join it.
* The Wellington Phoenix had been desperately searching for a backup keeper until this week. After an injury in training sidelined backup Reece Crowther for a few months, the reserve for their first few matches was 42-year-old goalkeeping coach Jonathan Gould, formerly of Celtic and Scotland (2 caps). Mark Paston remains the starter. Australian Liam Reddy shared time with Paston last season and All Whites reserve Glen Moss, now with Gold Coast was the starter two seasons ago, both of them left the Phoenix for starting spots elsewhere in the A-League. All Whites third keeper James Bannatyne has recently retired. Unfortunately, we won't get to see Gould showcase his remaining abilities, as the Phoenix signed former Brisbane Roar goalkeeper Griffin McMaster on Friday.
* Speaking of the Phoenix, the team is off to strong start in the A-League with 4 points from 2 matches after a 3-3 draw against Gold Coast United and a 2-0 win versus Central Coast Mariners. Both matches were in Wellington.
Against the Gold Coast, the 3-3 tie was a battle of Kiwi goalkeeper in the pouring rain. All Whites forward Shane Smeltz netted twice, albeit playing for Gold Coast. Obviously the weather was an issue. The third goal in particular hit the ground just in front of Paston's outstretched hand and failed to bounce, skipping in just inside the right post will few minutes left in the match. Still, Gold Coast generated many significant chances and it was only their shoddy finishing, together with some timely interventions from Paston that kept them at 3. It was their first ever points against the Phoenix. Their last match last season, a 6-0 win for Wellington, pretty much helped propel the Phoenix into the playoffs.
The 2-0 victory represented a significant improvement with goals from Leo Bertos and Paul Ifill, one in each half, helping the Phoenix control the match. Defender Manny Muscat in particular was singled out for praise by Ricki Herbert. Herbert is slowing introducing Toto Cornejo into the side. This time he replaced Bertos on 59 minutes. You have to figure Herbert is still conditioning his new Argentine playmaker, who looks a wee bit on the chubby side. Particularly pleasing to Herbert have to be the 5 goals scored so far. Hopefully the Phoenix can continue their scoring form away from home.
* Last week All Whites forward Jeremy Brockie started and scored (both first time) for the Newcastle Jets. He started again this past weekend as the Jets were shut out by the Perth Glory 1-0.
* Regarding the international friendly to be played on Oct. 9 against Honduras. No decision was made on where to play the match until last week. It came down to a choice between Christchurch and Auckland and NZF chose Auckland (though strictly speaking the match will be played in Albany on the North Shore, on the other side of the Harbour Bridge from Auckland). It's clear that the top football venue in New Zealand is Westpac Stadium in Wellington, but the spot for second has yet to be decided. Auckland wins out because it's the largest city in the nation at just more than 1 million people, while Christchurch represents the best option in the South Island. Attendance at the match in North Harbour could be indicative of where next year's internationals will be played when not in Wellington.
Fernando will continue to provide updates from New Zealand for IBWM, but if you'd like to read more from him, please visit his blog