Though the World Cup’s dissipating kaleidoscope may emancipate an oft-neglected prose, that of a pathologist’s diagnosis into the cause of each nation’s ailments, further objectivity is, inevitably, lost. Criticism of all 32, or, if so inclined, just the 31 sides that suffered defeat in Russia, is not unfounded, certainly, but often the temptation to obscure thought of all unqualified nations does exceed humility. Merely sparing a thought will not suffice – whether unbuttoning the mutilations of Dutch masters and Italian professori, circumnavigating American or Chilean humiliation, or dissecting the mystifying failures of the Marshall Islands, Madagascar or Timor-Leste, hosts when the cycle began in late March, 2015. The latter suffered the annulment of a 5-1 aggregate victory over Mongolia and the imposition of regulation 3-0 defeats after FIFA observed mass breaches of citizenship statues, if you had wondered.
No nation ranked lower than New Zealand (121st) extended their grasp quite as far, however. Accredited to the departure of Aboriginal playmates Australia from the Oceania Football Confederation, the All Whites, of course, qualify for Intercontinental Play-Offs by virtue of geography; now permanent occupants, since 2010 subject to pot luck in opponents. Last November, Peru propelled CONMEBOL decorum for another four years; following an Auckland stalemate, exasperated Andean intensity – disturbing the sleep of the Ferns from outside their Lima hotel – cast away all Oceanic mention.
Twice, they have defied logic. Before the 1982 World Cup’s expansion to 24 nations, only one OFC outfit had successfully secured passage to the finals (Australia, 1974) and the first match in a combined Oceanic-Asian Group 1 posed the Australasian duo in immediate antagonism; tribalism stoked. Birkenhead-born forward Steve Wooddin and 22-year-old midfielder Grant Turner had equalised in a frantic first-half, but captain, and moustachioed Lancastrian, Steve Sumner’s intervention was that which defied Australian brute force for the third time at a well-attended Auckland. Bemusing scheduling handed the New Zealanders three consecutive cross-continental trips before the Socceroos returned to action, hosting a replay in Sydney; in just nine days, inspiration translated in Suva, Taipei and Jakarta and striker Brian Turner, a relative veteran of the squad at 31, hailing originally from East Ham, bagged four en route to five further points. Wooddin’s ‘lethal’ left foot and a monumental header from G. Turner next secured an emphatic victory in their neighbour’s backyard, and historically enshrined belief had traded hands. The emasculated Aussies stuttered to slim victories elsewhere, but two days on from a 10-0 trouncing in Melbourne, Fiji – the Socceroos’ final hope – were thwacked 13-0 across the Tasman, Sumner bagging six.
Cast into a geopolitical melting pot with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and recently rehabilitated China to find two suitable qualifiers, inconspicuous Ferns were not out of their depth. The 60,000-capacity Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, a bastion of propaganda amidst various anti-rightist and anti-corruption state campaigns under Chairman Mao, hosted New Zealand’s visit, and a dour 0-0. Auckland’s Mount Smart, humbly carved into a quarried dormant volcano and free of the grandstands future rugby internationals would demand, witnessed a 1-0 home victory in the reverse, with Tāmaki native Ricki Herbert’s finish to thank for a defiant advantage. Only four further Ferns points followed – two when securing draws with Kuwait and the Saudis, the latter via an 87th minute Herbert strike, but most vitally two further, along with five first-half goals, in Riyadh to finish level on both points and goal difference with the Chinese, hampered by a 1-0 defeat in Kuwait three weeks earlier. The heavily Anglicised voyagers – helmed by Fleetwood-born John Adshead and Rotherham’s own Kevin Fallon as assistant, with Liverpudlian Billy McClure in midfield alongside Duncan Cole and Maidstone-born Dave Bright partnering Londoner Bobby Almond in defence, bolstered further by Northern Irishman John Hill and Scots Sam Malcolmson, Adrian Elrick and Allan Boath – entered battle again with Chinese counterparts, this time in neutral Singapore, and, under heavy bombardment from a position of comfort, survived – 2-1, 19-year-old striker Wynton Rufer with the winning goal. Some, in the height of delirium, suggested that in footballing terms, ‘the smallest nation in the world had just beat the biggest’.
The tournament itself, after a then-record breaking 15-game, 55,000-mile qualification examination, was a subsidiary prize; drawn against the philosophically peerless, the geopolitically chastised and the downright repulsive in Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland. Continued perseverance – Grant Turner facing a tournament-curtailing injury before they even began – and technical excellence offered them a glimpse in their Malaga opener, against Jock Stein’s Scots, and despite trailing 3-0 at half-time efforts from Sumner and Wooddin had reduced the deficit to just one. That was as good as it ever got; John Robertson and Steve Archibald eased Scottish alarm before Oleh Blokhin and Zico-inspired outfits paid early deaths of Oceanic churlishness; the neurotic qualities securing formalities in 3-0 and 4-0 routs.
If nothing else, it was astounding that between an ideological titan of 270 million citizens, though a disillusioned and octogenarian-ruled rustbelt, and the cultural exporters famed on o jogo bonito and its oscillating proponents, scorched earth was not the lasting image across the near-magical part-Polynesian, part-tundra climate adopted by a smattering of endearing Brits. Other than the obvious economic subtexts to transglobal migration, those few early 20-somethings that did arrive on the islands had very few reliable excuses for their investment in the fervent ambition of a then-37-year-old Lancastrian, himself appointed after the best part of a decade spent coaching Western Australian provincial and state teams – the inevitable repercussion of any non-league playing career rescinded at 22 by debilitating injury. On the flight to Spain were 22 semi-professionals, only five at the time employed offshore. Sumner and Boath with West Adelaide Hellas, Wooddin with South Melbourne, goalkeeper Richard Wilson, famously ever-present in qualification but dropped in Spain, at Preston Macedonia and Glenn Dods with Adelaide City, the 1977 inception of the Australian National Soccer League (NSL) – an innovation in PR, steered initially by the signature of Dixie Deans and loans of two Brits on the crest of transfers to European Cup winners, Graeme Souness and Justin Fashanu – captured the imagination of administrators, exposure to marginally superior professional standards deemed an invaluable asset. Only Wilson and Dods lasted more than two sparsely-attended seasons, the odd frisson of top-four favour interspersing mid-table obscurity.
Quite whether the NSL – finally disbanded in 2004, following two and half decades’ administrative flip-flopping, financial hardship and haemorrhage of any half-decent youth (half being the operative word, admiring Tony Popovic’s talents) – can be disparaged as a greater obstruct to Australian or New Zealander fortunes can be adjudged via a simple barometer, the perpetual fascination of each with the concept. If the Aboriginals and, less so, Māoris had suffered from the repossession of provincial responsibility by those the latter term the pākehā, the European population, in all other stratums of society, then the injustice against indigenous values was hereby unprecedented on the sporting field. Even if still a time of grand injustices in many sports – only two members of the winning squad of the inaugural Rugby World Cup, hosted in the nation in 1987, being of Māori heritage – the colonial undertones football certainly resonated at such a stage could have faced a significant social backlash, if not for the sympathy of the middle-classes. Football Kingz FC – named, evidently, with as much in the way of respect for royal lineage as the Sydney Kings dealt leniency in their initial accusations of copyright inflammation – were formed in 1999 as a hopeful speculation, one that did not relent when the NSL clattered down five years later, with A-League membership procured under the noble banner of the New Zealand Knights. Though Adshead returned as coach and future national team captain Danny Hay was enticed back from spells at Leeds and Walsall to skipper the squad, these servile chess pieces had an even shorter life span of just two 21-match seasons, fraught with neighbouring mockery and local apathy, Adshead resigning and Hay jumping ship within months. As a façade for the promotion of homegrown prodigies, it neither sustained a programme to fruition nor prospered with existing abilities, finishing rock bottom in both A-League editions, asphyxiated by the hovering executioner’s block offered by Football Federation Australia (FFA) authorities.
Yet the experiment lives on in spirit, if, fortunately, not by design. Wellington Phoenix are a known and esteemed quality in the A-League, external observers often even blissfully unaware of the roughly 2,000km that is added to an astounding 3,280km one-way commute to Sydney any time the Perth Glory squad come to visit. It has scarcely been easy, but at least Phoenix, once rising out of spiteful ashes, remain.
In keeping with its predecessors, Phoenix’s history persisted with the costly struggle that New Zealand Football – before the corporation came to its senses, then New Zealand Soccer – consider predestined, eliciting cynicism from Australian fans as administrators stressed patience and altruism. Not before Eleftherios ‘Terry’ Serepisos’ intervention did the franchise seem financially tenable, with the Greek-born property developer, renowned locally for his company’s development of the Wellington skyline and banking sector, investing an initial 1.2 million NZ dollars to raise the project off the ground, an eleventh-hour intervention. Serepisos, well-connected and idiomatic, with permanently frayed shirt collars and stubble adorning a tawdry grin, flung himself into the ownership role with audacity; welcoming David Beckham and LA Galaxy to the Westpac Stadium a month before their A-League debut. Saddled also with horse racing and basketball interests in the city, the 44-year-old had almost free rein as sole owner, the last-minute prop to NZS aspirations, yet found that the steed he projected as a worthwhile endeavour erred too often as a heaving, insurmountable white elephant. Admitting that the club was not profitable in its first two seasons, Serepisos pledged to court stability as performances progressed – the aforementioned Herbert combining his role as White Ferns boss with modest A-League ascendancy – and in the 2009-10 season entered high altars of Australasian sport, a lecherously masculine abode, by finishing fourth. Guaranteed of a berth in the post-season play-offs, used to determine a divisional ‘premier’, they cast Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets aside in the semi-finals and, with one match to decide if the emergent force of sides placed 3-6 can defy either of the top two, fell 4-2 to seasonal champions Sydney FC. Whether essential principles were compromised en route was for conscientious neutrals to adjudicate, as national team striker Shane Smeltz had departed to Gold Coast United, where he defended his title as top goalscorer, and Phoenix began the season with the maximum capacity of seven overseas players, equalled only by North Queensland Fury.
Serepisos’ business instincts likely advised unpopular measures. Squabbles over ethics were petty if ensuring the Westpac, a metallic monstrosity known locally as the ‘cake tin’, finally sold out to its 34,500 capacity, as achieved against the Jets. Neither did the measures drastically alter Herbert’s ability to ensure an acclaimed qualification for, nor a famously unbeaten run at, the 2010 World Cup.
Fortunately, the inception of the A-League had aligned, in a perceived new wave for Australian football, with the nation’s induction into the Asian Football Confederation. 2010 was the litmus test for how a post-op OFC would fare, and rather than be drawn against North Korea (automatic qualifiers), Saudi Arabia (defeated on away goals in an AFC play-off) or Iran (finishing fourth, behind the Saudis) from Group B in Asia, unheralded Bahrain were NZF’s intercontinental play-off opponents. Six days earlier, Phoenix had drawn 1-1 with Perth in front of fewer than 7,000. Having blanked the first leg in Riffa, Herbert’s White Ferns held the nation in suspense; the Westpac packed to the rafters, truly the ‘Ring of Fire’, for a floodlit decider, almost on the International Date Line. Rory Fallon, son of 1982 assistant coach Kevin, striker with Plymouth Argyle and only earning his third cap at the age of 27 after a three-year dispute with FIFA about the legality of changing nationality from earlier caps for England youth squads, headed in from a corner a minute from half-time, while Mark Paston swallowed up a 51st-minute Bahraini penalty. The greatest eruption was left for the final whistle, however – the bottleneck loose, each elated contributor was equal, from the six Phoenix players to a 17-year-old Chris Wood.
Qualification less a monumental feat than a display of capitalist potency, more was expected of the nation in South Africa than the semi-professionals of three decades prior. Yet reminiscence of former adversity was observed; the part-professional New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC), founded in 2004, holding strong influence. Sparingly used in his later years in the Dutch Eredivisie, 33-year-old defender Ivan Vicelich eased into retirement with Auckland City, while third-choice goalkeeper James Murdoch and midfielder Andy Barron plied their trade for Team Wellington, the uncapped Aaron Clapham emerged through Canterbury United ranks and free agents David Mulligan and Simon Elliott travelled opposite directions through the revolving doors of an increasingly erratic Phoenix. Barron gained notoriety as the only semi-professional to make an appearance at the tournament when introduced for a minute’s action against defending world champions Italy, yet for such a particular vision to consume a campaign was disingenuous; even if only scoring twice, repelling defeat from either chagrined Italians, stoic Slovaks or inventive Paraguayans encapsulated superb focus, tactical programming and cohesive priority from Herbert. Demoralised at the previous summer’s Confederations Cup (a 5-0 opening thrashing at Spanish hands a scathing assessment), and on the verge of capitulation at Phoenix, it was not only a performance of quirks and imponderable fortitude, but also of psychological adversity, central to New Zealand sport, that potentially cemented football’s position alongside naturally preferred codes.
The financial crash had enfeebled the nation, even if not to the extent of the Northern Hemisphere, creating hostility for businesses as banks struggled to access international markets and consumers faced the pinch. Serepisos may not have fallen into bankruptcy by the diminished demand for high-rises, but preoccupation with tenancy of Donald Trump’s chair in The Apprentice New Zealand and a failure to fulfil on $260,000 of Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) player levies by September 2010 had left the very future of Phoenix in turmoil, and his ability to transform the club into a profit-making business moribund. Whether the ACC debts were the result of a legal complication with being New Zealanders in Australian competition – A-League regulations stated private medical insurance had to be bought in Australia itself, with ACC demands effectively doubling demands – as Serepisos argued or not, further revelations only confirmed administrative incompetence; after ensuring sufficient payment to the ACC, $1.4m in ‘overdue rates and ground leases’ owed to Wellington City Council broke into public consciousness. A $900,000 loan from ASB Bank, sponsors of the NZFC, had been procured in April to ease immediate concerns, but now the statements of assurance were incapable of masking disorder.
Rather than abandon a third unscrupulous project, however, fans (the famed ‘Yellow Fever’), players and management – Herbert allegedly short of $100,000 in wages from the club in the twelve months that followed – banded together in defence of an entity that over the previous few seasons had become a family, not a franchise; Phoenix, a name originally selected by fans, resonated deeply still. If their support was evident, the business community could deliver the vital intervention, ensuring sense prevailed. And so, the nation – crippled by its third-deadliest natural disaster in history in the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake – entered its fifth era of footballing affair; succeeding unease, inspiration, imitation and blind ambition, autonomy prevailed. Previous indignation characterised by social exclusivity, administrative righteousness, the limitation of benefactors and moral antipathy was replaced by a consortium of national investors under the portmanteau Welnix, many with well-worn emotional attachments to the club, or to the transcendent heroism of 1982 and 2010.
Only today they have run into what some elements consider disrepair. With Football Federation Australia (FFA) continuing to demand a four-to-five-year renewal of league licences, dependent on factors including attendances, competitive performance and financial security, an inevitable three-pronged insurgence gathers around the perfectly spherical Westpac fortification at the end of each season. Welnix’s economist flanks exerted omniscient influence amidst successive middling league finishes, with favour for free transfers unbroken while the monied gentry, particularly of City Group’s Melbourne City, formerly Melbourne Heat, fed on the ample advantage of the division’s marquee player policy – introduced in 2013-14. A trough gilded with splendiferous matchday attendances and membership figures – led by indomitable force Melbourne Victory, but pursued by Russian-owned Sydney FC, the once-FFA-propped Western Sydney Wanderers, wishful in their fan-first rhetoric, following a $10 million 2014 buyout, and fellow Victoria-based Emirati playthings City – allows the aforementioned to gorge. Given a four-year licence reprieve in 2016, Phoenix remain left with the scraps of the feast before them. A spark of hope flickers, however.
On the horizon, potentially, looms the redemptive possibility of an independent A-League, freed from FFA chains, as the Premier League was of the FA in 1992. While present hierarchies appear intent on shielding their pawn by exercising further conservatism within immovable abacuses and fanciful capitalist desires beyond majority Australasian means, fans are wrangling to be free – especially those threatened by external franchise proposals, at least one reportedly from Tasmania – and to live without constant fear. Admirable sentiment, but not for one fanbase or club to promote alone, especially if the smallest of the small fry, Wellington.
Fortunately, administrative uncertainty is not an unknown commodity to fans of New Zealand football. Post-2012 OFC Nations Cup mortification (finishing third to Tahiti and New Caledonia), 2014 World Cup qualification failure (to Mexico) and Herbert resignation, the Ferns were stewarded by 33-year-old American-born Brit Anthony Hudson across senior, under-23, U20 and U17 ranks. Chagrin first piqued when Olympic Qualification at the 2015 Pacific Games saw the ‘Oly Whites’ expelled at the semi-final stage after defeated opponents Vanuatu lodged a protest to FIFA on account of Deklan Wynne’s eligibility; South African-born and only recognised as a NZ citizen under FIFA’s eyes at the age of 19, not 18 as necessary for Olympic entrance, after emigration aged 14, Fiji qualified for the men’s tournament in Rio instead. Resultantly deprived of Wynne and others from his experimental selection, dropping Clayton Lewis over fears of doping violations and lacking preparation matches ahead of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Hudson nonetheless steered the vulnerable powerhouses to victory and Confederations Cup qualification. Enhancing the reputation of the national set-up at home and abroad, Hudson was praised as a coach who affirmed the White Ferns’ position in the globe – supporting Darren Beazley’s and Danny Hay’s under-20 and U17 squads in respective 2015 World Cups, both reaching knockout stages, the former when hosts of the tournament – finally delivering a realisation to New Zealand Football of the inefficiencies of their hypocritical faith in Phoenix – raiding club resources for personal means – and fixating his philosophy around the abundance of youth. Professional standards and untainted vivacity revived internal spirit, but even he was tempted away easily after widely foreseen defeat to Peru, demoralised even at the early stage of a long-term vision.
NZF chief executive Andy Martin was forced, just last month, to resign – and “retire”, aged 51 – from his role amidst the mounting controversy of aforementioned administrative miscommunications and an internal investigation into allegations of bullying, intimidation and a culture of fear created by women’s coach and national technical director Andreas Heraf. Swiss coach Fritz Schmid – formerly a well-travelled aide of Christian Gross at Grasshopper, Tottenham and Basel – has stepped into toxic confines in Hudson’s wake, but was at least fortunate his competitive debut was at a distance from the embers of angst; a 1-0 friendly defeat to Canada in San Pedro del Pinatar, a Spanish coastal resort, in March. At the Intercontinental Cup, a squad of much-anticipated under-21s secured creditable victories over Chinese Taipei and hosts India after suffering defeat to Kenya – only the fifth and sixth victories against non-Oceanic opposition in the 2010s after friendlies against Serbia (2010), Honduras (2012) and Oman (2015) and the 2013 OSN Cup in Saudi Arabia. They now have youth pursuing aspirations in England, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and coast-to-coast America, with Hudson taking Wynne and Kip Colvey to Colorado Rapids alongside Tommy Wright. Some still remain on pathways set in the 1990s, enrolling on US Collegiate programmes before breaking into the MLS, with the NZFC in rude health after the 2016 addition of Auckland’s Eastern Suburbs and the Hamilton Wanderers, headed by Herbert in an overdue national return. Though Auckland City have the last five regular season championships and featured in the previous seven consecutive FIFA Club World Cup tournaments, Team Wellington broke their dominance in the OFC Champions League this season by eliminating their perpetual rivals at the semi-final stage and swarming to a pulsating final victory over Fijians Lautoka; former Guernsey FC striker Ross Allen scoring in both legs, 10-4 on aggregate, to secure a place at December’s latest Club World Cup instalment.
As FIFA reveal plans to remodel both the Confederations Cup and Club World Cup, however, where do conflicting interests leave the nation at the corner of the globe – the ostracised oddity, victims of the record number of Confederations Cup defeats (11) and producers of the most wooden spoon claimants in Club World Cup history (nine, six of those going to Auckland City)? Confed Cup 2021 already generally accepted as posing undue logistical complication, what with searing Qatari summer heats, and a revamped 24-team CWC, introduced in the international tournament’s absence, courting favour amongst FIFA officials keen to cash in on the mounting fortunes of club football - $25 billion allegedly pledged from investors to see a four-year cycle’s UEFA Champions League winners, finalists, Europa League victors, etc., vie for global dominance above the faux honour currently available – the OFC expect marginalisation, if not total eradication, from the international scene. The edict hails from the very top; Gianni Infantino an eternal European, hubristic with the pretence of astute judgement, severing ties from Sepp Blatter not only in refuting corruption claims, but in halting subsidies and interventions on part of the internationally inconspicuous. Quite whether billions leached from Arab-hosted summits of club elites and a three-way, 48-team World Cup would be poured into remunerations for evicted working classes or not, media sycophancy and public apathy towards this administration should elicit concern. Do not be dazzled by stardom, nor solicit sodomy as the global body splinter confederations on pre-existent socio-economic grounds. A productive diaspora aside, all football may see of New Zealand is an attendant of 2026 – when the OFC will be graced to one whole qualification place – by technicality alone, a minnow lost amongst the cacophony of politics and dissent. Yet if even their closest, conceited neighbours desert them, graciousness is not a commodity upon which the nation can rely in any vacuum.
Realistically, though internal professionalism may prove paramount, they will never possess the capabilities of counterparts ingrained in provincial culture. Transfixed youth are occupied by rugby in winter and cricket in summer, able to progress under the wing of prestige generations of yore have carved out, and to extend this legacy; shades of Richard Hadlee in Trent Boult, Kane Williamson inheriting from Brendon McCullum, George Nepia, Colin Meads and Jonah Lomu laying the foundations for the success of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams. Traditions are changing – football now the third most popular sport in secondary schools for both genders, and futsal on the rise. Translating such impish ascendancy will resonate throughout a reformed NZF, idolising reprisal in 2022 qualification. The nation’s destiny has never been so ably carried by its own sons and daughters, but the goalposts, equally, refuse to settle. Even for a modicum of success, the trial is unerring. Nostalgia is no evil, while few would begrudge preoccupation with a stable future – seldom have the two islands been granted merriment in the present, however. Some things never change, but hope never dies.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!