Memories spur on All Whites
WHEN the All Whites take their first steps on the road to the 2014 World Cup next month, there will be a prevailing sense of deja vu for coach Ricki Herbert.
New Zealand are taking on Jamaica at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium on February 29, the first game in a journey Herbert hopes culminates in Brazil in two years' time. And while the venue may be regarded as the Warriors' home ground first and foremost these days, Herbert's memories of Mt Smart are markedly more football focused.
That's because Mt Smart is the same venue where Herbert the player was part of an epic run which saw the All Whites qualify for their first World Cup in 1982. The upper lip is now bare and the short shorts have been swapped for business attire but, for Herbert, the memories of those days are still vivid.
"That '82 campaign had so many highlights," Herbert said. "I've been lucky enough to be involved in some big results - the national team have got a pretty good record there."
"It's a very historic place for football and a fantastic place to come back to.
"I'm looking forward to that but, more importantly, it's the start of the 2014 campaign and it's a good place to start."
Mt Smart has been bereft of international football for a decade but the fact it's kicking off the campaign is no accident. New Zealand football chief executive Grant McKavanagh said re-tracing the steps of the 1982 trailblazers could be used to motivate the crowd and players alike.
"We've chosen Mt Smart Stadium because it does have a bit of history,'' he said. "I spoke to the management team and they're very keen to be able to talk to the players about some of the things historically. It's just a nice little link for them to look back to '82."
Early indications suggest the players have been more than receptive to that link, as well as the opportunity to play a rare fixture in front of their home fans. With the friendly being in an international window overseas clubs are obliged to release their All Whites, meaning a strong squad is a certainty.
"We're pretty excited at the level of enthusiasm of all the players in the wider squad we've contacted,'' McKavanagh said. "They're all champing at the bit to get back to New Zealand and pull the shirt on. They really know they've got a good squad together and they've got a hell of a good chance to get to Brazil."
Herbert reinforced that sentiment but said his squad of 17, to be announced next month, would feature a blend of World Cup heroes from South Africa and those pushing for their places on a potential plane to South America.
"We'll bring back a very competitive group of players. We'll try and get that mix right, and I think there could be a lot of young players come into that group as well, so that will a good test for them against a top team."
That team, the 52nd ranked Jamaicans, have been selected as the All Whites' first opposition in 2012 for their CONCACAF connection - the confederation which New Zealand must go through to reach the World Cup.
"We see it as a good opportunity to benchmark where we're at against CONCACAF,"
McKavanagh said. "We really also want to put a shot across CONCACAF's bow to let them know that we're pretty serious about getting through to our second World Cup in a row."