World Soccer

COVID derails inaugural NZNL season

Miramar Rangers win the newly-formed New Zealand National League trophy after heavily disrupted season

- EMANUELE GIULIANELL­I

The truly troubled 2021 season of football in New Zealand came to an end in Wellington on December 12, as Miramar Rangers defeated Wellington Olympic 7-2 in the Grand Final of the South Central Series. New Zealand Football (NZF) had plans for this to be an historic season and, in many ways, it was – but not as they intended.

2021 was the New Zealand National League’s first-ever season, created as the successor to the New Zealand Football Championsh­ip. The competitio­n is separated into two stages, with teams competing in regional leagues to qualify for the Championsh­ip Phase. Four teams come from the Northern League, three from the Central League and two from the Southern League.

Those nine sides are joined by Wellington Phoenix Reserves, who automatica­lly receive a spot each year. Phoenix’s first team compete in the

A-League Men, the top tier of Australian football. After being founded in 2007, they obtained a licence to play in the A-League, replacing New Zealand Knights, and have taken part in every edition since.

But, as with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the plans for the new competitio­n upside down.

In September, the alert level for Auckland was extended to four, and NZF terminated the remaining Northern League season and cancelled any yet to

be played fixtures. Auckland City were comfortabl­y in front, as they had been so often in recent seasons.

The Championsh­ip Phase should be split into two regional groups – the Central League and Southern League – with the top two sides from each qualifying for a play-off semi-final

As with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the plans upside down

before the Grand Final. But the new alert level didn’t allow Auckland or Waikato teams to play in the competitio­n, so NZF decided to play a one-off interregio­nal tournament instead: the National League South Central Series.

With the four would-be qualifiers from the Northern League excluded, five sides from the Central and Southern leagues, plus Wellington Phoenix Reserves, all played each other once. After five matches, Miramar Rangers and Wellington Olympic occupied the top two spots, and qualified for the Grand Final.

Both sides had qualified for the Championsh­ip Phase from the Central League; Wellington Olympic dominated, winning 15 out of their 18 games and losing only once, while Miramar Rangers were five points behind on 42, edging out Lower Hutt City by just one point.

The Grand Final was their fourth

meeting of 2021, and Olympic boasted the superior record having beaten Miramar 1-0 in August, with the other two fixtures ending in draws (0-0 and 4-4).

Yet Miramar got their revenge in style, dismantlin­g their opponents with a 7-2 win at the Jerry Collins Stadium in Wellington. Striker Ollie Whyte scored two of the seven goals, taking his tally in the Championsh­ip Phase to seven, thereby securing the Golden Boot.

While Miramar players celebrate, it was not a totally satisfying end to a very confused and troubled season. NZF also confirmed that the South Central Series would not have any bearing on OFC Champions League qualificat­ion, which will have to be separately discussed with the OFC, while the New Zealand national cup, usually disputed in September, was postponed until 2022.

 ?? ?? Celebratio­ns… Miramar Rangers
Celebratio­ns… Miramar Rangers
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 ?? ?? Final clash… Wellington Olympic and Miramar players compete for the ball
Final clash… Wellington Olympic and Miramar players compete for the ball
 ?? ?? Miramar Rangers coach…Scott Hales
Miramar Rangers coach…Scott Hales

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