NZ Football's World Cup Dream Closest For 28 Years

illya mclellanSenior Analyst ISeptember 9, 2009

The anticipation is rising amongst the football public of New Zealand like it hasn't been seen since the heyday of the side (pictured) that qualified for the World Cup in Spain 1982.

All that stands between New Zealand and the glory of World Cup qualification is a two-legged tie against either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

Easily the closest we have been to the World Cup in many years. The '82 campaign is legendary amongst the New Zealand football public and is the only time that NZ's football side have made it to the tournament.

In the qualifying for the '82 tournament they went through a torrid battle that was chequered with great victories and nerve-wracking draws. A quest that captured the minds of NZ's sporting press and transformed the "sissy's game" into something quite different.

Extended national coverage for the game that existed in the shadow of rugby union for so long.

At the time New Zealand travelled further (55,000 miles), played more games (15), scored more goals (44), and took the longest time of all nations before them to qualify for the finals. Add to that the record (since eclipsed) score of 13-0 against Fiji, the longest time without conceding a goal (921 minutes) and New Zealand soccer was making all the right headlines.

This time however, 28 years of being left in the footballing wilderness could finally come to an end for the team from the bottom of the earth. They finally have a chance to make the leap into the cauldron of international tournament football, thanks to the exit of the more well developed Australian side to the Asian qualifying group.

That and FIFA's decision to change the old qualification rules to comprise of just one game after the Oceania group stage against an Asian qualifier rather than the old format which involved two games, the second against the fifth placed South American qualifier which was always a difficult task.

Now with the changes that have taken place New Zealand have found themselves once again at threshold of the pinnacle of world football, the FIFA World Cup.

The Confederations Cup experience was not all bad, with the low point when the team was given a footballing lesson by the Spanish, but also the high point of the pre-tournament ambush of a lackluster Italy, when the minnows held the World Champions to within one goal in a thrilling seven-goal match. Also the draw in the group play with Iraq with could so easily have been a victory with a little more luck.

The side is very different from the one that included names as Rufer, Sumner, and Herbert, Rufer of course becoming New Zealand's most famous player and winning the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, the Swiss Cup, the German Cup twice, as well as the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen.

Late in his playing career after stints in Japan and NZ he returned to Germany to help Kaiserslautern to promotion from Bundesliga 2.

New Zealand has a proud history that is littered with teams that were to smash against the wall that was Australia, until recently their football association opted for the increased competition of the Asian qualifying group.

This time it could well be New Zealand's turn as they have the best side they have had since the glory days of 82.

The most high profile of course being Blackburn Rovers defender Ryan Nelsen. The big lad from Christchurch was, sadly for NZ fans and the team and coaching staff, absent from the side that played in the recent Confederations Cup. Not currently playing while he recuperates from injury, he will be a key figure in the New Zealand side's quest for success in either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

Of course there is also Chris Killen, who is currently scoring the odd goal for Celtic and Shane Smeltz who is lighting up the A-League with his goal-scoring exploits. Not to mention Leo Bertos who is playing some good football for the Wellington Phoenix.

The first game is away to either opponent and will be vital in terms of the tie for the New Zealand side. Two-legged ties are a lot more basic than is sometimes let on, all it takes is two good games and you normally walk out as the winner.

However in any knock out game there is luck and for the sake of NZ football and its passionate fans hopefully fortune will favor the brave Antipodeans, as they take on the world in the quest for World Cup glory, even if it is just making the tournament.

With acknowledgement to sources including NZ Football and Wikipedia for statistical and factual data.