OPINION: When it comes to international friendly matches, New Zealand Football are damned if they do, damned if they don't. The news that the All Whites will face South Africa in Auckland next month has been met with mixed reviews, with the indifference predominantly coming from some of the players.
Some New Zealanders will see this as an easy opportunity to castigate those individuals for a lack of patriotism. But to question a player's loyalty and devotion would be misguided in this situation.
For the All Whites plying their trade in Europe, the short window they receive to withdraw from the coalface of the game is irreplaceable.
I know very few hearts will bleed for these young men, after all, the popular image of professional footballers is of young men who are overpaid, have the adulation of many and live a privileged life.
What is easy to overlook is the body-crippling workload that is imposed on most players at the elite level of the game. Tommy Smith and Chris Wood are probably two players who will look to excuse themselves from the fixture against Bafana Bafana. Before people cast judgment, they should be reminded that they started a brutal pre-season back in June last year and have been going solid ever since. When everybody else was enjoying Christmas dinner or New Year's Eve, most footballers are in a hotel getting ready for the next day's fixture.
The English league season, like many leagues in Europe, is brutal. Not only is it long and arduous but the expectation is huge and gaze intense on those individuals who play in it. Mentally and physically it takes a toll. Players need a chance to recover and recuperate before it all begins again.
But that shouldn't stop NZF from looking for worthwhile encounters. The All Whites have too few opportunities to test themselves against quality opposition. Having dropped in the Fifa rankings to 111 recently, it is obvious the All Whites need to be active.
The absence of two or three players shouldn't be seen as an excuse to turn down games - it should be considered a bonus. What better way to develop or challenge fringe or up and coming players than to have them tested by a tough adversary?
It is also important to recognise that games against opposition with a profile represent an opportunity to develop the All Whites brand. It is often a long time between drinks when it comes to playing on home soil. The last time they appeared in Auckland was back in 2012.
In order to inspire the next generations of All Whites, they need to be visible and accessible. Every opportunity that allows them to play at home should be grasped with both hands without the need to cross the standard NZF barrier to progression - costs.
International friendlies can create issues, but approached sensibly, it should be a win/win. If certain players need a rest, give others an opportunity to make a name for themselves.
Finally, I can't finish this column without paying tribute to a man who years ago gave me my start with Fairfax Media. John Matheson's sudden and untimely death is a tragic loss, not least to his wife and young daughter. Matho was a man who didn't pull punches and called things exactly how he saw it - which didn't endear him to everyone, but is exactly what I admired most about him. He will be sorely missed.
Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain
- Sunday Star Times
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