Football: Fan's Eye View No 223 - New Zealand

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The Independent Online
Football in New Zealand has long been held in high regard around the world and is credited with playing a major role in the psychological and historical make-up of the country. Hours of coverage are given to the sport on television, both with full coverage of domestic games and in documentary format. No news report, at any time of the year, goes out without some form of reference to "our national sport".

Unfortunately, the meaning of the word "football" in New Zealand is what everybody else calls "rugby", and, equally unfortunately, the voice of football (as we know it) is totally swamped by endless prattling on about Zinzan Brooke and how many hundreds of points the All Blacks will score against Japan.

The situation that the round ball game finds itself in this part of the world is truly bizarre. There seems to be an enormous battle going on between the public who are keen to see the profile of the game raised, and soccer administrators and the television companies who appear intent on killing it stone dead.

The problems seem to be created by the very opposite of the situation in England. Here, everybody's opinion is taken into account and therefore nothing is ever agreed on. If you can imagine hundreds of small-minded accountants, teachers and government bureaucrats (similar to the people who obtain Cup final tickets through the FA's amateur ranks) having the perverse thrill of wielding a small bit of power for once in their sad lives, and then trying to come to a compromise, you can begin to imagine the mess. On second thoughts, just imagine the English FA in a warmer country.

New Zealand operates a national league of just 10 teams. These clubs play each other twice and then the top four have a sort of a round-robin competition. This system can rather oddly result in the fourth-place team winning the championship, which is actually quite funny, unless of course you support the original top team, but with average attendances being around 1,000 then chances are that you don't.

There is no relegation from the national league, but we like to imagine that the club finishing bottom gets quite a severe telling off from Soccer New Zealand.

The beauty of the national league is that it is played in the middle of summer in order to avoid the ever-popular rugby season. As a spectator this is truly blissful, and the genial atmosphere at matches played on a long summer's evening is the sort of thing that helps you overlook the quality of the game. There can be no finer example of this than New Zealand's recent World Cup qualifier against Australia in Auckland. Some 25,000 people, 5,000 more than had attended an All Blacks' game at the same ground the previous week, decided to go along to cheer the boys and to drink too much in the sun. Heading home that night it was easy to overlook the 3-0 thumping from El Tel's boys and the occasion has gone down as one of the great days in New Zealand's footballing history. I think that we managed two shots during the match.

The World Cup road to France 98 was more of a "not worth taking the car" trip, it was so brief. The time between the first and last qualifier played by the All Whites (shudder) was 29 days and it only lasted that long because we qualified for the next phase! Still, only four more years before the next World Cup game.

Our run this year included an away defeat against Papua New Guinea which did not herald well for our new Irish coach, Joe McGrath. This genial Irishman (aren't they all?) had been appointed to lift the national side out of the doldrums, and to turn on some of the magic that he gave to Jack Charlton's era during the Republic's halcyon days. After the PNG result the realisation struck that no one had in fact heard of him, or checked his highly vaunted credentials. Faceless bureaucrats are always suckers for a smooth Irish charmer!

For more on Kiwi football contact: Sitter!, 14 Hyde Lane, Nash Mills, Hemel Hempstead, HP3 8RY.

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