Of the eight teams taking part in the FIFA Confederations Cup which kicks off in France tomorrow, New Zealand is arguably the team with the smallest international profile. Besides Colombia, it is the only other team in the line-up that did not take part in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
But Colombia possesses a vastly superior football pedigree than New Zealand having played at the previous three World Cup finals prior to 2002, and can also boast a higher world ranking (39) to back that up. There is no doubting New Zealand is the rank underdog of the tournament but they have the potential to surprise. They also have the most prolific international goal scorer of all the participating teams in veteran Vaughan Coveny who has netted 22 goals. Next on the list is world class French striker Thierry Henry with 18 goals.
Flying the OFC flag for only the second time at this event, the All Whites face Japan in its first match in Paris followed by dates with Colombia and hosts France. Both Japan and France played out the final of the last Confederations Cup two years ago with the French winning 1-0.
The All Whites qualified for this year’s event after pulling off an upset 1-0 over Australia at the 2002 OFC Nations Cup in Auckland. Flamboyant defender, Ryan Nelsen, was the hero on that occasion slotting in the match winning goal late in the game. His fearless attitude and inspired play typifies the resilience and resolve of the Oceania champions. In a warm-up game in late May, he scored a similar goal to help the All Whites to a credible 1-1 draw with Scotland. He was again at the fore of a brave effort by the kiwis when they played top ten ranked USA going down narrowly 1-2. There have also been solid wins in other minor warm-up matches in USA and France.
The evidence thus far points to a team gaining in maturity and finally realising its potential. More importantly, the awe factor of playing high calibre international teams seems to have been replaced by a self belief prevalent in their more recent outings.
New Zealand debuted at the Confederations Cup in Mexico in 1999 and on that occasion the players could have been forgiven for thinking they were fortunate just to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Germany and Brazil. But this time, coach Mick Waitt and his charges are aiming high and to win.
The OFC presence in France will also be felt with the presence of Australia’s trio of match officials, referee Mark Shield and assistant referees, Jim Ouliaris, Stewart Lockrey. They have been appointed to represent OFC and face a big challenge with eyes of the world on them. Shield is a young referee with a big future and despite having already officiated at the highest level, the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals; he is still aged in his twenties. A good performance in France will put him in good stead for future FIFA appointments.
FIFA Confederations Cup: Previous Winners
1992 (Host: Saudi Arabia): Argentina 3 Saudi Arabia 1 (ht: 2-0).
1995 (Host: Saudi Arabia): Denmark 2 Argentina 0 (ht: 1-0).
1997 (Host: Saudi Arabia): Brazil 6 Australia 0 (ht: 1-0).
1999 (Host: Mexico): Mexico 4 Brazil 3 (ht: 2-1).
2001 (Host: Japan/S Korea): France 1 Japan 0 (ht: 1-0).
Photo: An unforgettable moment as the New Zealand All Whites celebrate beating the Australia Socceroos in the final of the OFC Nations Cup in Auckland last July. That win booked New Zealand’s ticket to France. courtesy WSG/Kevin Bridle.