Confederations Cup a rare chance for Kiwis to shine
New Zealand is eager to prove it's not just a nation of rugby players, cricketers
New Zealand doesn't have a proud soccer history.
The tiny island country in the South Pacific boasts the All Blacks, one of the best rugby sides in the world, and a formidable cricket team known as the Black Caps, but soccer hasn't exactly won a spot in the hearts of Kiwis.
It's hardly a surprise, considering New Zealand's national soccer team, the All Whites, was long overshadowed by neighbouring Australia in Oceania competitions - before the Aussies joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 - and hasn't qualified for the World Cup in 27 years.
But hope springs eternal. The All Whites will try to escape from the shadow of their rugby and cricket colleagues and steal the spotlight for themselves with a strong showing at the FIFA Confederations Cup later this month in South Africa.
"This is a chance for us to get on the national stage," New Zealand defender Andy Boyens, who plays for the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer, told CBCSports.ca.
"All of the games will be televised and to be able to play against Spain will give us a bit more of a profile with the public. Hopefully, the fans will get behind us, they usually do, and we can get out into the limelight."
Soccer 'a bit behind'
"It's a huge opportunity for us," said teammate Jarrod Smith, a forward with the Seattle Sounders.
"New Zealand really doesn't have [the best] sporting background. We do pretty well for ourselves considering our size. Obviously with rugby, it's phenomenal how well we compete and the cricket team isn't too bad either, but soccer has been a bit behind in terms of success."
Indeed, New Zealand's track record in FIFA competitions leaves a lot to be desired. The All Whites crashed out of the 1999 and 2003 Confederations Cup in the first round (losing all six games and being outscored 17-2) and last played in the World Cup in 1982 (when they went home after three straight losses).
Fortune smiled on New Zealand when the draw for the Confederations Cup was held last December. The Kiwis avoided perennial superpowers Italy and Brazil, who will play in Group B alongside the United States and Egypt, and was drawn to play in Group A.
New Zealand faces a daunting task in its opening game of the tournament against reigning European champions Spain, but the Kiwis have two winnable contests after that, against host South Africa and Asian Cup champion Iraq.
Four points in the last two games of the first round could be enough for New Zealand to finish second, thus earning a berth in the semifinals.
In better group
"We are confident. In terms of the two groups, I think ours is the better one to be in. The other one has a couple of powerhouses," Boyens admitted.
"We're going to have to play well … and I think when we go to South Africa if we can get a draw against Spain, we set up ourselves to make it through to the next round. We're keeping our fingers crossed, we're staying positive. We have no doubt that it's going to be tough, but I think we can do it."
New Zealand, crowned Oceania champion in 2008 to qualify for the Confederations Cup, plans to make the most of the rare opportunity presented this summer in South Africa
"I think if you ask the players from Europe they'd tell you [this tournament] is just a stepping-stone or brief stop on the way to the World Cup, while for us we don't often get to play in tournaments like the Confederations Cup. To play in a major competition against teams like Spain is huge for us," Boyens explained.
The Kiwis are also looking ahead to when they will play a two-game playoff against the fifth-placed team from the Asian qualifying zone for the right to advance to next year's World Cup in South Africa.
A strong showing at the Confederations Cup will allow the All Whites to build some momentum and give players a boost ahead of that crucial showdown with the Asian qualifier.
Game seen as good test
"The big game for us is against Iraq because in October we play the Asian qualifier for the World Cup, so that game will be a good test to see where we're at," Smith said.
"Everything we do is building up to the World Cup qualifiers," offered Boyens. "That's our ultimate goal, to qualify for the World Cup in 2010, so to be able to play so many quality teams [at the Confederations Cup] is huge for us and allows us to build some chemistry."
More than anything else, though, Boyens and Smith, whose father was a famous cricket player in the 1980s, are just excited about representing New Zealand.
"To play for your country in any sport is a huge honour; the fact that my dad did it in cricket, and now for me to be able to do it in soccer is very exciting. I'm very proud," stated the Seattle forward.
"It's the pinnacle," said Boyens. "That's where you want to be, to be able to play for your country. It's special in so many ways and I always feel proud whenever I put on that jersey."