Latino star Cunningham awaits Phoenix rebirth

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2013
Kenny Cunningham
ON YOUR BIKE: Kenny Cunningham winds up for a spectacular finish at training.

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Having experienced the rarified air of Bolivian football at Stadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, it was inevitable Kenny Cunningham would come down to earth when joining the Wellington Phoenix.

But the Costa Rican international admits it has been difficult coming to terms with the choking sensation his new club appears afflicted by as his introduction to the A-League lurches from one agonising near miss to another.

Signed for two years in July on the recommendation of compatriot and fellow new arrival Carlos Hernandez, who, ironically, is reportedly far from happy in Wellington, Cunningham finds himself in unfamiliar territory - both on and off the field - as he moves from a stint in the little-known Liga de Futbol Profesional Boliviano.

The 28-year-old from San Jose made 12 appearances for The Strongest - the reigning Apertura champions - before adding New Zealand to his list of unconventional destinations for a professional footballer.

"It was very difficult to breathe," said Cunningham, as he recalled his games at the home of Bolivian football, the 38,000 capacity stadium built 3637 metres above sea level.

At least he had an opportunity to acclimatise, unlike many of the South American nations who encountered the Bolivian national team on what was hardly an even playing field.

Brazil lost at Hernando Siles in the lead-up to the 1994 World Cup - their first defeat in 40 years of qualifying - and in 2009, two years after FIFA rescinded a ban on the venue for World Cup preliminaries Argentina were thrashed 6-1.

Playing in such thin air builds fitness but the atmospheric conditions are not necessarily conducive to a passing game - goalkeepers regularly punt the ball from box to box so life is not always easy for an attacking midfielder.

Cunningham, who also played in the third division of the J-League with Guinare Tottori before relocating to Bolivia, has embraced Ernie Merrick's coaching philosophy at the Phoenix, even if it is yet to yield positive results.

Leading into today's round-11 fixture with third-placed Sydney FC at the Cake Tin, the Phoenix are winless in 2013-14 and in desperate need of a morale-boosting victory - or even a more clinical performance in front of goal.

"It's very frustrating, I don't have any words," said Cunningham, who is fluent in Spanish and English.

Cunningham scored his first goal for the Phoenix in the previous clash with Sydney FC in November, though in keeping with the club's wretched season his stoppage time equaliser was eclipsed by a last-minute winner.

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"We train to win the game, we're playing good football but not winning is very frustrating," he said after the Phoenix outplayed the Central Coast Mariners last Thursday, yet still lost 1-0.

Cunningham was among the nearly men in the second half by failing to make contact with a deflected cross in front of an open goal, though Stein Huysegems' unsuccessful penalty and Jeremy Brockie's second botched sitter in consecutive games were the glaring misses.

"We can't score, I don't know why. In the second half, nine times, 10 times we can't score," lamented Cunningham as the team and management strive to remain positive.

"We have to keep it up and believe in the work. We're still mentally positive. I believe any moment we can win."

It would be timely if that moment arrived in Wellington today given his wife and nine-year-old son Dayland are due to be reunited with Cunningham.

His compatriot and team-mate Hernandez, meanwhile, may be forced to wait longer and reports during the week speculated the 31-year-old playmaker was unhappy that his wife and children remained at home in Costa Rica.

The Phoenix issued a short statement last Friday, saying they were working with him and his agent to resolve the issue and reunite him with his family.

But unlike Cunningham, Hernandez doesn't appear likely to link up with his loved ones soon.

"This year I've only had one month with my family, only one month," Cunningham said, citing his time in La Paz, shift to Wellington and Costa Rica's qualification for next year's World Cup as necessary impediments.

Reconnecting with his family will enhance Cunningham's home life, while he has also become more effective as a player after initially struggling to break into the starting lineup.

Cunningham has featured in eight of Wellington's 10 games and started six, including the loss to defending champions the Mariners, in which his pace was a constant threat.

"Every day I'm playing better, and feeling better," he said . "I hope to stay five or six year. If that happens, I'll be happy."

- Sunday Star Times

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