New Zealand are on the verge of appearing at the world's premier sporting tournament for only the second time in their history. While they have benefited from a slightly easier qualification journey than some teams, it is merely a quirk of the competition that has seen this occur.
The cyclical nature of qualification and luck is one thing that defines the World Cup as a competition. Right up until the final and then even in the final itself. Sets of expected opponents do not appear as predicted and many are only left to wonder at what might have been.
In New Zealand's qualifying they met a Bahrain side that were actually a very good footballing unit, who could not seem to find a finish on their home pitch. Bahrain were overwhelmed by the energy and vigour of the All Whites in Wellington and exposed as lacking in fundamental areas of the game.
New Zealand making the finals of the World Cup is an excellent achievement and something that is to a large degree in NZ, not appreciated for its difficulty. Not to mention that it is an extraordinarily long tournament with preliminaries for the next tournament taking place soon after the final takes place.
Being a part of the final 32 is an an excellent achievement in itself and now New Zealand put themselves before the world in what will be one of the most intensely scrutinized sporting events in the history of mankind.
The opponents are all excellent teams and present three different styles of football to the New Zealand side.
Italy of course bring a World Cup pedigree with them into every game they play. While in recent years they have not hit the heights of previous configurations of their countrymen, they are still outstandingly gifted, which, coupled with advanced and engineered training methods over a hundred or so years, puts them at a level that New Zealand can only dream of attaining. However, it is football, which over the course of its history has always provided upsets and quirks, especially in the World Cup.
Italy should be technically far too good for New Zealand and play around them to the goal. New Zealand will probably still have a few opportunities to score though. The Italians defensively are not the powerhouses that they once were. With Killlen, Smeltz, and Fallon, who are all good in the air, there could be a realistic threat on breaks and set pieces.
Italy are astonishingly good at football though, so it will probably be the most difficult game of many of the New Zealanders' lives. Italy should win comfortably, though it is a brave man who eliminates all possibilities at any time.
Paraguay are similar in size population to the small island nation from the Pacific, but in terms of football, that is where the similarity ends. Paraguay in the South American CONMEBOL confederation finished third in a 10 team qualifying group, beating Brazil and Argentina during qualification.
They again are leagues ahead of New Zealand in terms of player development and the evolution of their coaching theory. Without even mentioning the names of their players you are able to see that they are phenomenally talented when the results that brought them to the finals are considered. Excellent consistency and application of skill will be enough for Paraguay to win this game. Technically they will be similarly developed to the Italians, purely through the strength of their most oft met opponents.
In this match, as will be the case against the Italians, New Zealand will struggle to get a hold of the ball and will only have limited chances to do damage through an aerial threat. The style will change as well as the tempo of the match and the way the game pans out will be devoted to a different continental style. This will again leave New Zealand having to be highly drilled in terms of shape, and also awareness of movement and timing.
This game could prove to be even tougher than the Italy one. In the case of the game against the current world champions, Italy, the New Zealanders have at least played them as recently as the Confederations Cup in South Africa last year. Paraguay will play fast and skillful football that may leave the New Zealand team wondering what they are able to do to combat it. This will most likely be another loss for NZ, but at the same time, the players and New Zealand support should only be trying to take lessons from how they see Paraguay play and hope to apply these lessons to the New Zealand game in the future.
The variation in styles of play goes from the Mediterranean, to South America, and then to Eastern Europe.
Slovakia have played football as far back as 1939 when they beat the Germans 2-0. In the following years they were taken in as a part of Czechoslovakia and over the years they have contributed many excellent footballers to this former European powerhouse. Czechoslovakia were victorious in the 1976 European Championships, with a considerable amount of the players that made up this side being Slovakian. This means, from a historical perspective for Slovakian supporters, that it is seen as a game that will not present too many problems for them as a footballing unit.
Eastern European football is renowned for its excellent technical base and rugged physicality. Also a reliance on this technique to keep possession and wear opponents down. Certain flourishes of outrageous skill come in also, as will be the case in all three of the games New Zealand play.
There is a popular misconception in New Zealand that this game presents New Zealand with a chance at a victory, when the reality is again very far from this. Slovakia will present a rough and rugged, but very technically proficient style that will be another type of football for New Zealand to try to adapt to.
Czechoslovakia was at one stage the third ranked team in the world in the 1990s and Slovakia as a footballing entity has sprung up out of this pedigree. They will again, according to form and coaching development, be years ahead of New Zealand and it will again be a case of New Zealand functioning with scraps of possession trying to procure chances from set pieces and breaks. Another very tough fixture.
New Zealand go into the World Cup with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Regardless of the performances of the team in South Africa, New Zealand football as a unit will benefit hugely from its participation in this tournament and the administration and coaching sides of the game will be able to take excellent experience away from whatever happens and hopefully transcribe this into tangible benefits for the game in New Zealand. The players themselves have a chance to learn more in these three games than they have in all games previously in their careers. Only Ryan Nelsen and Chris Killen will have really encountered teams that are as technically gifted as these three sides on a regular basis.
The objectives for New Zealand then are clear. Take as much as possible from the experience and adapt it to the forward motion of the development of football in the Pacific. This can only lead to development of the game at home and in the future it could be looked upon as a triumph for New Zealand's footballing philosophy, even if the results in the tournament do not go to a winning plan.
The World Cup though and football in general, always has surprises in store. New Zealand will hope that they can spring one, on their esteemed and cultured opponents. Being there is the major triumph at present, it will come down to how the lessons of the next few months are learned, to see how New Zealand come out of this in the long haul.
This article first appeared at NZVirtualsport.co.nz