Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Football in New Zealand: Wellington Phoenix 2-2 Melbourne Victory

Well, technically it's Australia, since the newly formed Wellington Phoenix (brilliant crest, by the way) play in the Australian A-League, which kicked off this weekend. The team took the place of league laughing stock New Zealand Knights, who were destroyed by the perfect storm of 1) being incompetent on the pitch, 2) low attendances, and 3) financial problems. It was always going to be difficult promoting football in a nation obsessed with a sport involving differently-shaped ball (sound familiar, American readers?), but frankly, I'm baffled at the failure of the Knights in Auckland, which for the uninitiated is New Zealand's biggest and most diverse city (and also where I happen to live), especially compared to the evident success of the Phoenix, although it is early days. Wellington has 1/3 the population of Auckland, so you'd think they'd struggle for attendance even more, but apparently not.

Because the Phoenix's first ever game, their league opener against the defending champions Melbourne Victory, attracted 14,421 lively fans to the Westpac Stadium (nicknamed the Cake Tin and no doubt familiar to those of you who follow rugby), setting a New Zealand attendance record for a football game. Keep in mind, Wellington has a population of around 400,000, and this game outsold the Wellington vs Tasman Air New Zealand Cup rugby clash which happened earlier in the same stadium by about 3000. Very, very impressive.

But all this would have been for nothing if the Phoenix turned out to be rubbish on the pitch like the Knights. 60 minutes in, they were 2-0 down, Brazilian playmaker Daniel having missed a penalty and things looked grim. But they mounted a stirring two goal comeback with Daniel making up for his error by scoring a header from a corner and New Zealand international Shane Smeltz getting the second, also a header but this time from open play. There were even a few chances to win the game late on, but it wasn't to be, and a point is a fine result from this game.

Match reports:
I was quite frustrated that things didn't work out in Auckland, but it's great to see things going well in Wellington, and the mainstream coverage they're currently enjoying. I'll definitely be following their progress this season as the Phoenix attempt to earn some respect back for New Zealand football.

All the reports said great things about the fans, who drove the team on and made quite a lot of noise with their songs and chants. Hopefully the positive experiences of the first game will keep fans coming back in as the season goes on. Early signs look pretty good. Incidentally, the Phoenix's supporters group are called Yellow Fever (so named because of the club colours) and seem to be a hard-working bunch. Good for them.

Lastly, it was heartening to see a great op-ed in the New Zealand Herald (our national daily) praising the Phoenix and being optimistic about the future of football (or as it's called here, soccer) in this country. It makes a point that I think is very important to get across in countries where football is merely trying to gain acceptance rather than being the national sport:
The great news is that sport lovers in New Zealand have a choice.
It's not that one has to come before the other. Having variety merely means that everyone is happier. I write hundreds of thousands of words about football every month, but that doesn't stop me from cheering for the All Blacks.

(Your regularly scheduled posting about European football will resume shortly with a couple of Barca-related posts.)


Lynda said...

As a passionate fan of a team in a lower-level league in another country that doesn't "get" soccer, I'd love to see you post on New Zealand football again when you find the time (yeah, I know, easier said than done). Just curious: is the attitude in New Zealand toward football more one of apathy or outright antipathy? That's the weird thing in the US--a lot of people really hate the sport, not just because they consider it boring or only for children, but there is a sense that it is somehow not manly enough for us red-blooded Americans, and is possibly some kind of European communist/socialist plot to infiltrate our sports pages and our lives.

As you mention, though, there's plenty of room for other sports, and I know some Portland Timbers fans are also big basketball, baseball, or American football fans.

Incidentally, our excellent coach, Gavin Wilkinson is a Kiwi. He's played for the Timbers since their rebirth in the USL, but I believe he also played on the New Zealand national team for a while.

Linda said...

I think I will be following the Phoenix's progress this season on this blog, time permitting.

I think in the cities there's more apathy than antipathy, but out in the rural areas and small towns, which tend to be rugby-obsessed (and produce the best rugby players), there's a lot more contempt for it (for being, as you say, not manly enough compared to the rough and tumble game of rugby), but it's not big enough here to even inspire hate, which is a bit sad on its own.

I think Wilkinson might be a member of the legendary (to use the term loosely) '82 side who qualified for the World Cup for the first and so far only time in our history. They didn't get a single point in their group, but at least they scored a couple.