The All Whites celebrating their historic draw against defending champions Italy in South Africa 2012
As the titans of world football played out the final chapters in their seemingly never-ending road to World Cup 2014 in Brazil a small, rather insignificant dot on the football world’s heel watched on. They had finished their initial qualifying campaign in March undefeated some 6 points clear of their nearest rivals with an equally impressive scoring record of plus 15, conceding only 2 goals in their six qualifying matches. Ordinarily this kind of record would make the footballing world stand up and take notice, particularly when talking about form coming into a World Cup but when the competition is the Solomon Islands (rank 169), Tahiti (rank 146) and New Caledonia (at a respectable 95 in the world) one has to take scoring records with a little more than a grain of salt. That said the conquest of the Oceania World Cup qualifying group for New Zealand was always just the first, smallest step on the road to reaching the holy grail of Brazil’s white sand, ahead lies far, far more daunting tasks.
Not that victory in the Oceania group was guaranteed for the men who proudly, and with no racial overtones intended, call themselves the All Whites. After all the wake up call had been received loud and clear as recently as 2012 when New Zealand, as clear tournament favorites stumbled through the round robin stage of the Oceania Cup of Nations before succumbing the the irresistibly smooth play of the powerhouse New Caledonians in the semi finals 2-0. They would go on secure third spot with a hard fought 4-3 epic against a robust Solomon Islands team, but it was a victory that did not quench the thirst of the fans back on the Land of the Long White Cloud. Despite several of their star players being away, the All Whites were charged with gross underachievement in the tournament and some pundits even questioned their ability to make it out of the Oceania group at all for the fast approaching World Cup qualifying campaign. For a team that could proudly boast exiting South Africa, 2010 with the only unbeaten record, 3 games, 3 draws (including one against defending champions Italy), the thought of failing to make it out of a group boasting only one team other than New Zealand themselves (at number 67) in the top 100 was not even worth thinking about.
With this in mind the All Whites set out with a renewed determination to show that the effort of 2012 was just a lonely bump on the road to greater things, a Keith Richards overdose in the constant battle for sobriety. They vowed as they watched Tahiti, eventual winners of that infamous Oceania Cup of Nations, claim their roll as the ‘feel good team’ or ‘everybody’s second team’ at the Confederations Cup in Brazil whilst being handed a 24 – 1 aggregate score over their three matches, including a memorable and heroic goal in their 1-6 defeat to Nigeria, that they would be back on the big stage as the representatives of Oceania. It is a promise that they were able to keep.
Following their success in Oceania, New Zealand waited impatiently with their half ticket to the finals for their final opponent. Fate had given the second half of this prize to the Confederation of the North, Central American and Caribbean, or CONCACAF), rather than the AFC as it was in 2010 and who now would face half a South American team; and it was expected that Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras would be fighting it out for the two spots after the USA and Mexico sealed theirs, as was the norm. Unfortunately for the All Whites fate decided to intervene. Mexico, longtime regional powerhouse, had decided they would do their best to appear as it if they had only been introduced to the game and began a improbable spell of abysmal football. After coasting through their group, which incidentally contained Costa Rica, with a New Zealand like six wins from six and a goal difference of plus 13, they entered the final round of qualifying, or the business end, full of confidence. Somewhere in between however, the wheels didn’t just come off but fell off, were stolen by a street gang and eventually sold for scrap never to be seen again. Although undefeated for their first six games they only won one, against lowly Jamaica at home, with the other five draws. They then conspired to lose their next two against Hondurus and the USA before finally claiming a second victory, a must win against Panama, their biggest rivals for forth spot, on the 15th of October 2013. This result left them needing just a point to achieve the spot in the play off. In the end however, they couldn’t even achieve this. A 2-1 loss to Costa Rica away left them nervously praying for the Americans to hold Panama in their own patch to secure Mexico’s position. In the end their northern neighbors withheld this particular favor until the final moment scoring the two winning goals in second half stoppage time and it is fair to say that perspiration records were comfortably broken as nervous Mexicans pondered a summer away from international football.
For the All Whites the news couldn’t have been much worse. For all their toiling in qualifying Mexico boasts a team full of talent and experience at the highest level. They have a proven track record in major tournaments and will be looking at the playoffs as a way to get back some of the momentum lost in their horrific qualifying run. Mexico will host the first leg on the 13th of November, while the All Whites will be hoping they have something to show the Mexicans other than used Lord of the Rings sets when they arrive down under on the 20th. It will be an encounter which makes the David and Goliath’s biblical battles seem rather evenly matched. The All Whites will need to show all their defensive tenacity, spearheaded by West Ham’s Winston Reid, if they are to keep a Mexican attack led by Manchester United’s goal magnet Javier Hernandez, at bay. The odds however, are firmly against them. For all their famous determination and effort New Zealand are a very limited side, physically strong but technically weak. They have only a small pool of professional players to chose from and only boast one fully professional team in the country, the Wellington Phoenix, who play in the Australian A League. It would have been an massive challenge had the All Whites been forced to play Panama but one wonders whether, over two legs, the challenge of Mexico will be a too big for the plucky Kiwis to overcome.