Island flair catching up to NZ football
The Romans have just repelled the barbarians after a long, bloody battle. They feast long into the night. But a thought gnaws at the emperor as he watches his men celebrate. With each attack, the barbarians seem stronger. And they'll be back.
That may be how Ricki Herbert feels once the wave of relief washing over him has passed. For New Caledonia and the other Pacific Island nations to make life difficult for the All Whites in the islands, with the searing heat, and bumpy, frog-infested fields, is one thing. But for a country with a population of 250,000 to stand toe-to-toe with New Zealand on our home territory and be, according to Winston Reid and Tommy Smith, the better side before going down to - what else? - a header in the last seconds is evidence that the tide of power is turning.
Admittedly, suspensions and injuries left the All Whites lineup looking like a painting from Picasso's cubist period. Chris Killen, a striker, in midfield. Jeremy Brockie, a goalscorer, at wingback. Midfielder Ivan Vicelich in defence. But those changes in no way account for why the players of New Caledonia and the other Pacific Islands are able to do things on the ball which remain beyond the great majority of white New Zealanders. Once those creative qualities are harnessed, as New Caledonia's are being by the French, then Houston, we have a problem.
Do Polynesians and Melanesians have an inborn ability lacking in the DNA of the white man? We know that white men can't jump. White men can't dance. Is it also true that they can't play? Yes, they can battle. They can win headers. They can even become proficient with ball at feet. But the good old garden-variety white Kiwi doesn't have flair. Find a Kiwi with X-factor and there's an explanation. Wynton Rufer? Maori. Marco Rojas? Chilean. Kosta Barbarouses? Greek.
Fortunately, you can go a long way on fitness, discipline and passion, as the All Whites showed at the last World Cup.
New Caledonia is lucky, in a football sense, that France got there first. If England were running the show, the Callies would have been told to "stop ....ing around with it son. Get it in the ....ing box". Their flair would have been drilled out of them. But the French value style over efficiency, and so the Islanders' natural desire to do interesting things with the ball is encouraged, rather than stifled as it is in New Zealand.
We've talked about this before. Go down the park on Saturday morning and listen to the coaches telling their youngsters to "get rid of it" and "don't do that near your own goal". Big kicks are cheered by the watching parents. And so our kids are taught that expressing themselves with the ball is bad, booting it downfield is good. As long as that goes on, players like Rojas will remain a rarity in New Zealand football.
Let's hope victories over our island neighbours don't go the same way.
- Billy Harris is a former All White
Sunday Star Times