Mexico loss a setback for New Zealand football
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - New Zealand football's greatest celebration is in danger of becoming a very distant memory after the national team's 5-1 loss to Mexico in the first leg of a World Cup qualifying playoff in Mexico City.
The second leg of the playoff in Wellington on Wednesday is a sellout and the expected crowd of 37,000 is set to be the largest for a football match in the history of this rugby-mad nation.
But hopes of a repeat of the 2010 match in Wellington in which New Zealand beat Bahrain 1-0 to qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa have largely been dashed by New Zealand's resounding away loss.
On Friday, dozens of tickets to the match were for sale on auction websites and there were few bids.
Officials at Wellington's Westpac Stadium are confident the match will still attract more than the 35,000 fans who watched the Bahrain match four years ago.
''We're expecting a full house and we've got no indications we need to prepare for anything different,'' stadium manager Shane Harmon said.
The 2010 match and New Zealand's subsequent performance in South Africa, where it was the only team to leave the World Cup unbeaten while still not progressing beyond pool play, were seen as revolutionary for football in New Zealand, which has never been able to break out of rugby's shadow.
New Zealand's only professional team, the Wellington Phoenix, was also enjoying its best season in Australia's A-League in 2010 and for a short time audiences for football, both live and on television, hit peaks. Junior playing numbers rose, causing some commentators to predict football would eventually overtake rugby as New Zealand's national sport.
But interest in the sport has steadily waned over the intervening four years. The Phoenix have finished last in the A-League in three of the last six seasons and the national team's form has been mixed, although it continues to dominate the Oceania Confederation - the smallest of football's regional conferences - and only after Australia left the confederation to play in Asia.
New Zealand won the Oceania World Cup qualifying competition, although it lost 2-0 to 126th-ranked New Caledonia at the Oceania Nations Cup, which allowed Tahiti to represent the region at the Confederations Cup tournament in Brazil.
The failure of football authorities in New Zealand to capitalize on the success of 2010 mirror their similar unpreparedness when New Zealand first qualified for a World Cup, in Spain in 1982, after the longest qualifying campaign in history.
New Zealand's success in that season followed the deeply divisive rugby tour to New Zealand in 1981 by the South African Springboks. South Africa was then still in the grip of apartheid and protests against the tour reached a level of violence never previously seen in New Zealand, leading to a backlash against rugby, including by parents directing their children to other sports.
Against that backdrop was the New Zealand football team's ground-breaking success and the thrilling nature of their campaign - they had to beat Saudi Arabia by five goals in their penultimate game to keep their hopes alive and did so, in Saudi Arabia.
But football wasn't prepared for the sudden rise in support and the massive influx of new, young players. They hadn't the grounds, the coaches or the competitions to cope with those numbers and most converted players drifted away, leaving football again a minority sport.
The loss to Mexico, which all but ended New Zealand's hopes of qualifying for Brazil next year, has likely set back football's growth in New Zealand.
The Bahrain match four years ago, won by a single goal from England-based striker Rory Fallon, galvanized football fans in New Zealand and won the sport more admirers.
The atmosphere at the stadium that night was loud, raucous but family-friendly and many parents believed they had found a sport they could enjoy with their children, more than rugby tests where often liquor-laced behavior deters family groups.
Recriminations over the defeat in Mexico have already begun with newspapers calling for Ricki Herbert, national coach since 2005, to resign. Herbert has been heavily criticized for the defensive tactics New Zealand employed in Mexico City.
Herbert angrily hit back at those calling for a change of coach, saying ''is there anyone better?''
''It's not about me, it's about the future of the game,'' Herbert said.
On the positive side, more New Zealanders are playing professionally overseas than ever before, including West Ham captain Winston Reid.
But losses like the latest one to Mexico reinforce the belief that New Zealand football still has a long way to go. It's an unpalatable message in a country brought up on the feats of rugby's All Blacks, who have maintained an 80 percent win record over 108 years and are unbeaten in 2013.
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