Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Zealand Hopes to Erase/Make History

Maybe the most interesting qualifying match on Saturday is the winner-take-all affair between New Zealand and Bahrain, in Wellington.

These are the two lowest-ranked teams (Bahrain is No. 61, according to; New Zealand is No. 83) still in the running for South Africa 2010.

One, Bahrain, has never been in a World Cup, and if it qualifies ... would instantly become the smallest nation, by population (770,000), ever to play in the greatest event in sports, eclipsing Trinidad & Tobago (1.3 million).

The other, New Zealand, has been in the World Cup finals only once, and that was 28 years ago.

Which is a bit of history the pioneers of 1982 wouldn't mind seeing set aside by a new batch of Kiwis in the Big Event.

The Dominion Post of Wellington has done a story on some of the players from the 1982 New Zealand World Cup team, guys approaching middle age now, and they seem to have one opinion on the big game Saturday -- they want the Kiwis to win and take away their "first and only" appellation.

They would be fine with being the first.

New Zealand probably ought to win this match. It is a sports-crazed country that ranks among the world elite in cricket and rugby, a country that always has an elite runner or two.

It has a population of 4.3 million, too, presumably giving it a bigger talent pool from which to draw.

Bahrain, however, has some naturalized players (Nigeria-born striker Jaycee John, most prominantly) , which levels the pitch more than a little. It also plays tougher competition, in the Asia zone, than New Zealand sees in Oceania -- which no longer has Australia in it.

The first half of this long-distance home-and-home playoff was a 0-0 draw in Manama.

New Zealand advances by winning, or by winning a shootout after a 0-0 draw. Bahrain goes forward with a victory or tie from 1-1 on up (by dint of "away goals").

The Kiwis will have a packed stadium of 35,000-plus, and are hoping for vile weather. They said they "suffered" in the heat of Bahrain last month, and one of their players was pulling for strong wind, sleet and temperatures of 7 or 9 celsius (50 or so Fahrenheit), and see how the Bahrainis like the cold.

This is fun. Whoever advances will be the Official Underdog of the 2010 World Cup.

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