Plumb: Kickstarters for football in New Zealand

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
FANS: NZ’s buzzing about the World Cup, but will that translate into people watching the Phoenix?
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FANS: NZ’s buzzing about the World Cup, but will that translate into people watching the Phoenix?

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OPINION: The World Cup, a visit by Premier League teams and next year's under-20 tournament are real chances for the New Zealand game to build some momentum.

It's been branded the greatest World Cup ever. But since New Zealand failed to be part of the action in Brazil, will the tournament actually have an impact on the local game?

We're regularly hearing now how football is the top participation sport in the country, and on Friday, the popularity card was again played by New Zealand Football.

As per the national body: "More than 42,000 youngsters under the age of 12 took part in NZF club and affiliated programmes in 2013, a 10 per cent rise from 2010, while last year saw the youth game grow markedly, with 18,000 teenagers involved in the game - a 30 per cent hike from the previous year and up seven per cent from 2010."

And according to NZF's community director, Cameron Mitchell: "With young people accounting for 70 per cent of our player base, the future of the game in New Zealand looks bright with our wide range of aligned national programmes beginning to bear fruit."

The numbers look good - so how best to retain player interest?

And how are the raw numbers converted into a layer of excellence - which ultimately, will keep the All Whites at the World Cup on a consistent basis?

An active and credible national men's team is a must if football is to realise its potential. It's the single most important piece of the jigsaw.

NZF chief executive Andy Martin has signalled, encouragingly, his intent that all of New Zealand's national teams will play more regularly. Along with the appointment of a new All Whites coach, it will take a bit of time for that to happen.

The national women's team, meanwhile, are more than doing their bit, with a raft of positive results recently against the world's best sides.

As an immediate litmus test, the "Football United" tour this month will be interesting. It could prove something of a case study, too.

The visit of Premier League teams Newcastle United and West Ham United is a rare treat for Kiwis, and hats off to Gareth Morgan and the rest of the Wellington Phoenix's ownership group, Welnix, for engineering such an opportunity.

Apparently, provisional ticket sales have been good. However, the decision to screen the games as a pay-per-view TV event, at $40 for the package of all matches, is perhaps questionable.

Sure, it's absolutely a commercial decision and bringing the teams over can't be cheap, but will it deter viewers and limit mass appeal?

It also remains to be seen whether the two English "Uniteds" are high-profile enough to generate that mass appeal in the first place. The majority of standout stars at the World Cup aren't actually even Premier League names.

A big selling point of the tour is the number of marquee players coming to town. The concept of a marquee player has always been popular, in the A-League, though it has not always worked. The Phoenix have never bought into it. But do they need to?

Their poor home attendances drove Morgan to demand a better style of play - with the sound intention of selling a more attractive product. But to achieve a better product you need better players.

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In the UK, tennis has traditionally been something of a marginalised sport, though Andy Murray may have gone some way to fixing that with his Wimbledon title and Olympic gold at London 2012.

Nevertheless, despite the deepest, darkest days of British tennis, when it wouldn't be a blip on the radar for 50 weeks of the year - it would be absolutely massive for a fortnight.

The "Wimbledon Effect" in the UK is as sure as day follows night. Every year, during and in the immediate aftermath of the tournament, clubs up and down Britain report huge spikes in participation.

But as sure as night follows day, it will have all fizzled out within another fortnight and the cycle repeats.

After the All Whites qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the first time they'd featured on football's biggest stage in 28 years, there was a lot of rhetoric from NZF. The mistakes of 1982 would not be repeated, we were told. It wouldn't be a flash in the pan.

But New Zealand failed to get to the very next tournament.

Although the numbers at the local park may be good, at the top level, the mistakes of '82 are, so far, indeed being repeated - with Martin and Co now in the process of trying to move the goalposts.

There is also the small matter of New Zealand hosting the under-20 men's World Cup next year. It's a massive opportunity to engage fans and drive the game.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether landmark events can be turned into anything more than rare spikes of interest.

- Sunday News

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