In this four-part series, Ryan Murray unravels the complex tapestry of New Zealand football, delves into the nuances which have thwarted the Kiwis’ progress, reflects on whether recent infrastructural changes have had any immediate positive impact, and considers what the future holds for New Zealand’s domestic game.
Auckland City’s hegemony
The transition between New Zealand’s Football Championship and the recently unveiled National League has been relatively clean, despite the small matter of a global pandemic bridging the closedown of one and the inception of another. The greatest threat to the continued progression of the league is characteristic of the same risk which has conspired to blight the national team’s development: the presence of an unrivalled hegemony. Indeed, New Zealand’s command of the OFC region is relatively similar to Auckland City’s dominance of the local Kiwi theatre.
Between 2004 and 2019, Auckland City amassed an incredible 12 Football Championship ‘premierships’ (regular season title), and seven ‘championships’ (play-off title). Their youth team also has a habit of sweeping their opposition aside, becoming champions of New Zealand’s elite junior league on seven occasions in the past 20 years – more than any other participating side.
Yet, City’s imperious presence extends way beyond domestic borders. Last August, the North Islanders dispatched Tahitian outfit Vénus to clinch their eighth OFC Champions League crown in a decade, continuing a period of continental control which could surely never transpire within the competitive framework of any other confederation. In December, the club also sealed its third continental treble, adding the National League title to their Chatham Cup (New Zealand’s annual nationwide knockout competition) and OFC Champions League trophy haul.
By virtue of their regional performance, the Navy Blues have often flown the flag for Oceania at the FIFA World Club World Cup, and whilst results have been mixed, the club has generally represented its continent—and country—well. Indeed, in an unprecedented moment in Oceania’s footballing history, City overcame Mexican CONCACAF Champions League winners Cruz Azul to earn third place at the 2014 FIFA World Club World Cup in Morocco. A miraculous achievement for a club that operates within a semi-professional capacity.
But do Auckland City’s local exploits set a concerning precedent for New Zealand’s domestic game?
The All Whites’ stranglehold over the Oceanian sector has stifled improvement and growth; New Zealand lacks a worthy adversary to stretch and test their capabilities, and smaller nations are often left disillusioned by their inability to contest for the continental title. Clearly, there are sometimes exceptions to this narrative (as the 2012 OFC Nations Cup illustrated), but, on the whole, regional conditions are a hindrance, not a help. Could Auckland City’s National League (and previously Football Championship) superiority serve to undermine New Zealand’s internal progress? Or, for that matter, could their continental dominance stunt the development of club sides within the OFC confederation? This second question also bears relevance when reviewing the overall impact of New Zealand-based teams in continental competition.
Since 1987, when the OFC launched its first pan-regional club tournament, the OFC Club Championship, representatives from New Zealand have won 12 continental titles (nine of which belong to Auckland City), a figure which would have undoubtedly increased had the competition not facilitated a twelve-year gap between its first and second editions (and two other much shorter intervals at the turn of the century). To further exacerbate the issue, the first four winners of the OFC Club Championship were Australian sides. After Sydney FC were proclaimed OFC champions at the end of this sequence in 2005, the best teams in Australia, in conjunction with their native governing body’s decision to join the Asian confederation, would compete in the AFC Champions League.
Only two outfits from other nations have triumphed, Hienghene Sport of New Caledonia, who defeated compatriots Magenta in the 2019 OFC Champions League final (the first occasion that a NZ club did not feature in the competition’s showpiece event), and Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United, who shocked West Aucklanders Waitakere United in 2010.
Surely, this type of disproportionate balance in the heritage of continental champions does little to improve overall playing standards across the continent? Perhaps, given the nature of Oceanian football, this is just an unavoidable by-product of geographical and logistical circumstances. However, could the OFC do more in attempting to address this disparity?
The National League: what next?
So, is New Zealand’s new National League a positive, revitalised competition, engaging nationwide audiences, and propelling the native game to a level which reflects its potential strength? Will the league support its respective international side through viable playing roster policies that protect prodigious Kiwi talent? Or is it yet another doomed manifestation of a domestic league that has typically served to undermine the progression of its national team, and fail its football-enthusiastic inhabitants?
Time will ultimately tell. The coronavirus pandemic has put paid to building any robust conclusions of its success so far—one full season cycle is hardly a suitable platform to judge performance. Yet, one cannot help but feel more confident about this latest (and hopefully last) league instalment. Its structural characteristics seem far more conducive to the nature of New Zealand’s footballing scenery, and more attuned to the logistical challenges at hand. Given the league’s popularity with fans and professional media coverage (as per the Football Championship, Sky Sports has picked up the mantle as broadcasting partner), there’s also a tangible zest and vigour about the National League, an energy more aligned to its successful counterpart over the Tasman Sea than previous flawed top-tier projects. A successful first season, with some hugely entertaining fixtures and respectable attendances (albeit with usual suspects Auckland City taking the championship title), certainly bodes well for the future.
Much like the Kiwi, a bird which has become synonymous with the country’s cultural heritage, New Zealand’s domestic league structure may never truly take-off—at least not to the same extent as the likes of the A-League or MLS—but the National League should allow local clubs to better spread their wings.
Qatar arrived too soon, but, who knows, the Kiwis may just ruffle a few feathers in North America come 2026…