Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPASTIMES -

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.

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