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.
The vicious cycle
There is almost a chicken and egg style dynamic to New Zealand’s stunted progress. Are the All Whites unexceptional because they represent a country which is burdened by a historically weak league? Or is the standard of football in its domestic league poor because the majority of the national team roster plies their trade outside the borders of their native homeland? In truth, the answer to each question is a resounding yes—both realities have conspired to weaken the Kiwi cause.
However, a degree of sympathy should be applied. True, New Zealand Football are guilty of delivering a regular barrage of self-inflicted wounds, but the governing body is forced to operate in an entirely bizarre set of conditions, which are hardly conducive for producing a potent international force.
The OFC, jointly founded by New Zealand in 1966, is by far the least developed confederation in terms of internal infrastructure, commercial leverage, and global influence. The Kiwis are a colossal fish in a small pond, or, more accurately, a relative shark in an ocean of minnows. Previously, New Zealand shared this lopsided status with Australia; however, since the Socceroos’ departure, the NZF have been forced to operate in a unique state of paradox. Continued OFC affiliation pretty much certifies a World Cup play-off spot every four years, providing the Kiwis overcome an extremely modest batch of opponents and, a place in a winner takes all inter-confederation tie. awaits. However, this situation also clearly reduces New Zealand’s capacity for improvement.
Unable to regularly test themselves in competitive action against a worthwhile opponent, the All Whites are locked in a cycle of stagnation. When play-off fixtures or World Cup contests do come round, with a superior adversary waiting in the wings, they are often woefully unprepared for the step-up in class.
On May 5th 2016, New Zealand tumbled to an embarrassing 161st place in the FIFA rankings, staring incredulously upwards towards the likes of South Sudan, Singapore and Puerto Rico. Shockingly, even in this hour of shame, the Kiwis were positioned higher than any of their OFC neighbours, and duly lifted the OFC Cup within five weeks of their disastrous ranking being unveiled (admittedly, by the time they lined-up for their final group game of the tournament, FIFA’s June rankings had been announced, with New Zealand rising to a lofty 147th).
The Socceroos’ exit has arguably piled greater pressure on New Zealand, who are perhaps the only nation in world football who are expected to overcome each of their confederation opponents with consummate ease—this was a burden they previously shared with the Australians (when taking matches against each other out of the equation). In fairness, the All Whites have dealt admirably with this super-charged level of expectation. However, although local calamities have been mostly averted in recent times (their third-place finish in the 2012 OFC Cup aside), endeavours outside their immediate sphere of influence have been disappointing to say the least.
Whilst qualification to the World Cup should not be benchmarked as a suitable barometer of performance—New Zealand often face a challenging pathway to the finals, meeting the likes of Mexico and Costa Rica in recent inter-continental play-offs—a quick review of more ‘measurable’ results does not exactly make for comfortable reading. At the 2017 Confederations Cup (the final edition of a tournament which was contested between the seven winners of each confederation’s continental competition, alongside the incumbent World Cup hosts), the All Whites were eliminated in the first round after finishing bottom of their preliminary group, registering a solitary goal in the process. New Zealand were defeated in all three fixtures, although in fairness they faced a set of strong sides in Russia, meeting the hosts, Mexico, and Portugal in a difficult run of games. Eight years prior, the Kiwis emerged from the Confederations Cup with a single point, despite being drawn into a far more forgiving group—a hammering from Spain was followed up by a disappointing goalless draw with AFC champions Iraq, before a poor 2-0 loss to South Africa rounded-off a treacherous campaign.
A series of humiliating friendly defeats also jar in the memory, with the likes of Uzbekistan, Thailand, Kenya, and Jordan all securing victories over New Zealand within the last decade, contributing to their inability to secure a position amongst FIFA’s Top 50 ranked nations.
A lack of representation
A cursory glance at the national side’s playing roster paints a concerning picture for local league inclusion. Domestically-based clubs have produced two representatives in recent Kiwi squads—full-back Kelvin Kalua of Eastern Suburbs (a side who incidentally failed to qualify for this season’s National League) and Auckland City midfielder Cameron Howieson, who has sixteen international caps to his name. The elite leagues of Europe often provide sanctuary for a host of ‘All Whites’ stars, with the likes of the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Danish Superliga, and Israeli Ligat Ha’al currently all providing residence to New Zeal internationals.
Unfortunately, this continuous migration of players has conspired to produce a double-edged sword for the national game; high-potential individuals, keen to follow in the footsteps of their heroes, are attracted to more developed footballing arenas, whilst local teams are bereft of international-level footballers, subsequently impacting the playing standard, and brand, of the domestic top-tier. Perhaps this is the catalyst for the continuing underwhelming performance of the national team…..
A weak league, devoid of its strongest local talent, has undoubtedly undermined the grassroots movement in New Zealand. With the country’s best players earning their living thousands of miles away, a vacuum begins to materialise, as the nation’s youth are stripped of having any regularly accessible, locally-based stars to idolise. Clearly, this has an adverse impact on how children engage with the sport, with participation rates suffering as a consequence. Interest levels have a direct impact on funding, and fewer players equals less competition for places, a recipe that stifles the development of the game. Therefore, the next generation of footballers produce the same results as their predecessors.
There is no proven algorithm between the strength of a country’s domestic league structure and the prosperity of its international squad, but it would be fair to say that a nation that harbours a competitive, commercially viable and well-watched local product will generally fare well at major tournaments. All but three of Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning squad were registered to La Liga sides, only one player who started for Germany in their 2014 World Cup Final victory played their club football outside the Bundesliga, while almost 85% of Italy’s triumphant 26-man Euro 2020 squad were employed by a Serie A outfit.
In contrast, New Zealand are yet to win a World Cup group stage fixture, and even failed to land the OFC Cup (the Oceania confederation’s quadrennial national tournament) in 2012. Competing exclusively against a group of nations with extremely limited resources at their disposal—Australia’s 2006 exit to the AFC pre-empted the Socceroos’ continuing absence from the competition—the All Whites were rather embarrassingly defeated by eventual runners-up New Caledonia at the semi-final stage; Tahiti claimed the spoils that year.
In 2013, authorities revoked the league membership of perpetual strugglers Youngheart Manawatu, who had competed in New Zealand’s top-tier Football Championship since its inception nine years earlier. But rather than fill the evacuated spot with another franchise, the league decided to exploit this available league position in order to support the national team’s cause at the 2015 U20 World Cup, a competition that was to be staged in New Zealand. A new club, Wanderers SC, specifically established to provide a platform for native youngsters (who would still be eligible to play at U20 level come June 2015) to develop their talents, was integrated into the league. This approach was further enhanced in the 2014/15 season, when it was mandated that 50% of each team’s matchday squad must be eligible to play for New Zealand.
Although Wanderers SC managed to accumulate just 32 points from 30 league fixtures during its two seasons of participation (although the quest for points was clearly very much a secondary priority for the club), these efforts appeared to pay-off—New Zealand’s U20 side would progress to the knockout stage of a World Cup for the first time in their history, a feat they would later replicate in 2017 and 2019.
A Phoenix helping a Kiwi in distress?
But what of Wellington Phoenix? Has their flight to the A-League helped or hindered the national cause? Despite the club’s primary affiliation to Australia’s top-tier, Phoenix’s contribution should not be exclusively measured by the exploits of its component reserve side (who, as we’ve previously seen, have played in New Zealand’s strongest league—in whatever guise that may be—for the best part of a decade).
Phoenix’s success is index-linked to the external perception of New Zealand’s game; a winning Phoenix side ultimately casts the country in a positive light. In 2010, the capital outfit advanced to the A-League play-offs (something the country’s only other previous A-League representative, the New Zealand Knights—who were stripped of their league licence following poor performance both on and off the field—failed to do before Phoenix acquired their league position in 2007), and a decade later, achieved their highest regular season ranking, finishing third ahead of a raft of established clubs.
However, New Zealand’s only professional side has also helped its native homeland through various other channels. Wellington Phoenix’s inspirational supporter’s group, Yellow Fever, formed within 24 hours of the club’s birth, has done plenty to elevate the local game. Given the huge distances involved in travelling to any away game, Yellow Fever members often attach themselves to National League clubs (including their reserve side), bringing a distinct noise, colour, and atmosphere to proceedings, and bumping up attendance figures in the process.
Furthermore, the group are also extremely active on the international scene, regularly mobilising their support to encourage New Zealand—whether it be the men, women, or youngsters in action. Yellow Fever also produced a successful podcast series entitled ‘Phoenix City,’ which, far from focusing exclusively on Phoenix’s A-League trials and tribulations, saw its hosts also cover a myriad of topics and issues specific to New Zealand. Although disbanded last May after five years on air, the podcast, by turning their listeners attention to events occurring on the domestic front, encouraged its considerable audience to take an active interest in New Zealand’s leagues and international progress, subsequently raising the profile of the local game.
The A-Leagues strict squad nationality policy, which demands a club can only recruit a maximum of five overseas players, has also indirectly resulted in Wellington Phoenix providing another significant boost to New Zealand’s footballing development. Indeed, a rule designed to ensure Aussie clubs were investing sufficient focus into resourcing local talent, and by virtue supplying the Socceroos with a steady stream of international-standard players, has inadvertently aided the Kiwi agenda. In a relevant adaptation of this policy, the overwhelming majority of Phoenix squad members must be of New Zealand origin; therefore, the club has needed to install a player pipeline fit for A-League standards, and as a result has continually produced a wealth of technically-strong, homegrown footballers. Clearly, this is hugely advantageous to the New Zealand national side. However, given that Phoenix’s future stars will likely cut their teeth in the reserve side, the domestic league also benefits from the club’s impressive production line.
Sarpreet Singh, Liberato Cacace, James McGarry, Joe Bell, and Max Mata are all recent examples of players who have navigated this route, graduating through Phoenix’s ranks, performing for the reserve side in New Zealand’s top-tier, before going on to represent their country at full international level.
The nature of Phoenix’s connection to its native footballing environment has also helped to mould the fortunes of New Zealand’s clubs—the absence of a highly-capable side can only undermine the potential competitive intensity of the league. For aspirational clubs eager to enhance their outputs, this is ultimately bad news. A team facing a stronger opponent will naturally try to raise their game – experiencing challenges breeds improvement.
However, with one less quality adversary to tackle, Phoenix’s exclusion also increases the likelihood of winning silverware. Indeed, one club in particular has seen its trophy cabinet swell considerably in recent years—would this have been possible if the capital’s best side competed on home soil? In the conclusive edition of this four-part series, we take a closer look at the meteoric rise of Auckland City, charting their progress, in both domestic and continental contexts, and attempting to understand the varying impacts of their success.