FOOTBALL HITS RUGBY FOR SIX IN NEW ZEALAND
FOR the first time in almost three decades football will emerge from the shadow of rugby to command national attention when New Zealand play for a World Cup spot today against Bahrain.
A crowd of more than 35,000 will pack Wellington’s Westpac Stadium – the largest crowd for a football match in New Zealand’s history – and thousands more will follow the action on giant screens around Wellington.
The television audience for the match is also expected to break national viewing records and, for the first time in years, soccer has usurped rugby’s premier place on newspaper sports pages.
With the All Blacks currently touring Europe and the cricket team also overseas, the World Cup qualifier has given football an unprecedented chance to shine. Whether the sport can capitalise on its prominence to permanently enlarge its following in New Zealand – dependent on the outcome of the Bahrain match – is the subject of much debate.
Soccer last enjoyed this level of interest in 1982 when New Zealand reached the World Cup in Spain for the first time, and after a qualifying campaign of 15 matches.
John Adshead, the coach of the 1982 New Zealand team, will be attending the match as a special guest as part of a squad reunion.
“It’s going to be an absolutely united front, with the hope that another 20-odd players will be taking the same journey that we took,” he said.
Football’s last high in New Zealand coincided with an unprecedented period of trauma for rugby. A tour to New Zealand in 1981 by a racially-selected South African rugby team had deeply divided the nation, leading to the most violent protests in New Zealand’s history.
Rugby’s image had been heavily scarred and many parents removed their children from the national sport and encouraged them into football as a safer, less political alternative. But football was ill-equipped to cope with the influx of young players. It had not the coaches or even the playing fields to support large player numbers and it quickly surrendered its new popularity.
The numbers of juniors playing rugby and football are now roughly comparative but at senior levels – from high school on – the sports rapidly diverge and rugby’s pre-eminence becomes obvious.
Demographic changes in New Zealand have slightly swelled football’s popularity but even the most important regional matches draw crowds of only a few hundred which makes the scale of the crowd for today’s match remarkable.
Followers of all sports, and mainly rugby, have been attracted to an occasion which is an exciting novelty – a football match which New Zealand has a realistic chance of winning and with the prize of a World Cup place up for grabs.
“Most people understand that it’s fairly big, but in terms of playing or coaching in this, it’s absolutely the pinnacle of sport, there’s nothing bigger,” New Zealand captain Ryan Nelson, of Blackburn Rovers, said.
After a scoreless draw in the first leg in Bahrain, New Zealand does appear to have a chance of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time in 27 years.
Although even that owes a great deal to its geographical location and the quirks of Fifa’s qualifying system.
New Zealand have reached this final stage of qualifying for 2010 after winning the Oceania tournament, which pitted them against mostly tiny island nations such as Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Solomons. Until the 2006 World Cup, Australia were also part of the Oceania region and stood as a road block to 83rd-ranked New Zealand’s progress to later stages of qualifying.
Australia’s decision to switch to the Asian confederation – through which it has already qualified for South Africa 2010 – left the door open to New Zealand.
Fifa then decided that the Oceania winners would compete with the fifth-placed team from Asia (Bahrain).
They will likely become the first nation in World Cup history to qualify without defeating a country with a population of more than one million. Fiji, at 849 000, and Bahrain, at around 750 000, have been the largest of its opponents so far. – Sapa-AP
THIS IS IT: All Whites skipper Ryan Nelson during training in Wellington ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Bahrain.