The All Whites will face South Africa in Auckland next month – but questions remain over player availability for the match.
The game, to be played at Mt Smart Stadium on May 30, adds a new chapter to a traditional sporting rivalry and local fans will welcome a rare opportunity to see the All Whites in action on home soil.
But the makeup of the New Zealand side is uncertain. Many players who were canvassed about a possible match in May told NZF they would prefer not to have a fixture at this time. The game is not within an official Fifa window and is in the middle of the off-season for most of the team.
Most of the European football leagues finish in mid-May, while the Wellington Phoenix players will be freed from their club commitments on April 17 and won’t recommence training until early June.
The players are wary of going into a game against good opposition short of match fitness and also recognise that this off-season could be their last chance for a genuine break before the next World Cup cycle gets underway.
Tommy Smith, who captained the team for the World Cup qualifying matches against Mexico, has already indicated he won’t be available for an All Whites friendly at that time of year.
Chris Wood has been part of the Leicester team that recently sealed promotion to the English Premier League while both Marco Rojas (VFB Stuttgart) and Winston Reid (West Ham) have struggled with injuries during this campaign.
Despite the apparent reluctance of the players, the match represents a great opportunity for NZF and one that probably couldn’t be turned down. The organisation knows the team need to play more often, especially on home soil, to build the profile of the team and the sport.
“Given the nature of our situation with players now based all over the globe, it’s imperative for our team and players that we take every opportunity to bring the group together,” said NZF chief executive Andy Martin. “A game, in Auckland, against strong opposition in South Africa ticks a number of important boxes for us on and off the field.”
The rivalry with South Africa, built principally through rugby and cricket, should ensure a healthy media and public interest and local expatriate South Africans will boost the crowd figures. Travel costs will also be lessened as Bafana Bafana will meet the Socceroos in Sydney on May 26, before facing the All Whites at Mt Smart Stadium four days later.
It could also be the first step to more matches in the future – perhaps even regular clashes between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The players have been vocal recently in their desire for more matches, and need to see this game as one step on the ladder towards the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There is also increased competition for places in the current All Whites environment, so some may not want to miss a chance to impress.
The team will again be led by interim head coach Neil Emblen in what will be just the sixth senior men’s football meeting of the two nations.
South Africa were 2-0 winners over the All Whites at the 2009 Confederations Cup while the visitors recorded four wins over the New Zealand side in a series in 1947.
South Africa will present a good test for the All Whites, without perhaps the gulf in class we saw against Japan. They are currently ranked 64th in the world with the All Whites 90th.
The match will be the first time the All Whites have played in Auckland since a 6-1 win over the Solomon Islands at North Harbour Stadium in 2012 and it will be the first match at Mt Smart since a clash with Jamaica in the same year.
Herald on Sunday