Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Zealand Desperate for Fan Support

The United States can relate to this. Canada, too. Even South Africa, most years.

It is an English-speaking country in which soccer is, well, soccer. Not football.

Where soccer is anything but the No. 1 sport in the national sports hierarchy.

But where qualifying for the World Cup is a real possibility ... if only the national side can get a bit of support from the hometown population

How bad are things "soccer" in New Zealand?

So bad that New Zealand's soccer federation already has announced it is slashing ticket prices for a crucial home match, Nov. 14, in Wellington.

How sad is that? Well, quite. The Kiwis are 180 minutes from reaching the World Cup finals, for the first time since 1982. And they fear that they won't be able to sell out a 34,000-seat stadium unless they offer ticket prices at a fraction of what the country's rugby team could (and would) charge.

New Zealand is champion of Oceania (which no longer includes Australia, so it isn't exactly a tough region), which qualifies it to play the fifth-place team from Asia in a home-and-home series to determine one of the precious 32 World Cup berths.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia first play their own home-and-home (Sept. 5 and 9) to determine Asia's No. 5, and the survivor will face New Zealand. The first game will be in the Asian country, on Oct. 10. The second match will be in Wellington a month later.

New Zealand soccer officials realize that having a full stadium is critical. It would be damaging for team morale to have the All Whites (as the soccer Kiwis are known) come out on the pitch and see scads of empty seats.

Filling a 34,000-seat stadium with the World Cup on the line shouldn't be a problem -- and wouldn't be in nearly any other country in the world -- but New Zealand loves its rugby (and perhaps cricket, too) far more than soccer.

Also, New Zealand isn't a very populous place. It can't support much of a soccer infrastructure in the margins of its sports menu (as the U.S. does). The Wellington metro area has a population of less than 400,000, and the entire country's population is only 4.3 million.

Anyway, it strikes us as a bit perverse that soccer, a game invented by English-speaking people, in England, is perhaps least popular -- compared to other sports -- in primarily English-speaking countries. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Just about anywhere else in the world that doesn't speak English as an official language (aside Cuba and Japan) ... soccer is No. 1.

Be interesting to see if the Kiwis can pack the joint, come Nov. 14, with the World Cup on the line. Someone may have to make sure the country knows it's a big deal.

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