18 Nov 2017

All Whites may have lost, but we really do love the underdog

6:24 am on 18 November 2017

Opinion - The All Whites were the underdog against Peru this week, but we couldn't have expected more from the desperate, skilful South American team, Matt Richens writes.

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The All Whites after their loss against Peru. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

That 'us against the world and everyone's against us' mentality seems to gel us together like an angry Brit's column bad-mouthing the All Blacks.

The All Whites were the ultimate underdog this past week and, even with time to process, I'm still not sure about how I feel about the 2-0 loss in Peru, which ended the All Whites' World Cup bid.

On one hand, to foot it with the might of Peru and not fold despite all that was thrown at them, and with two of their better players only getting limited minutes, should be applauded.

Questionable (though expected) off-field tactics and a hostile reception have been and will continue to be highlighted, but Peru are just a better team and that shouldn't be forgotten.

Chris Wood played just 68 and experienced defender Tommy Smith 67 of the 180-plus minutes over the two legs.

Could we really have expected more? 2-0 against a desperate, skilful team fresh off a brutal South American qualification process is something we should be proud of, all things considered.

Our comparative build-up was laughable in its gulf in class and few gave coach Anthony Hudson's side a sniff over two legs.

But, on the other hand, Winston Reid and his team-mates did foot with Peru and created chances. For large parts of their two games they defended well and as time ticked on through the two-leg tie, the pressure of not making it to a Football World Cup since 1982 was growing, giving the Kiwis more and more of an edge.

Maybe my disappointment, minor though it is, comes from the All Whites being so close for so long. Had they left Wellington 3-0 down, my hopes would have been dashed earlier.

They made me believe.

The gutsy 0-0 draw in the capital gave the team, the nation and me a bit of hope, especially the last quarter when Wood started to impose himself.

Peru were a different side in Lima, though. They seemed faster, the difference in skill on the ball - and keeping it - was more evident and the All Whites' mistakes were pounced on.

Two usual rocks in Andrew Durante and Michael McGlinchey were both partly responsible for the opening goal while to concede the second from a set-piece was heartbreaking.

That has been, and needs to be, the All Whites strength and to be sloppy from a Peruvian corner was disappointing.

Let's address the rankings

New Zealand's Tommy Smith up against Peru's Edison Flores.

New Zealand's Tommy Smith up against Peru's Edison Flores. Photo: PhotoSport

I've deliberately not mentioned the difference in places of the Fifa rankings between the sides because, in my opinion, they're a bit of a joke.

Peru are not the 10th best team in the world and New Zealand are far better than our 122nd position implies.

It helps the story though, doesn't it? They're 112 places ahead of poor wee us, we have no chance, but what if? What if David did beat Goliath again? We really do love an underdog.

Peru started their 20-match qualification campaign - which featured home and away matches against the likes of top 10 sides Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Columbia - ranked 50 in the world.

The weight placed in playing those strong teams fires them up the rankings.

The All Whites don't get to play opposition anywhere near as tough and, through injury and other reasons, haven't had their best team on the park either.

A team anywhere near full strength for New Zealand, featuring Reid, Wood, Ryan Thomas, Marco Rojas and Smith, is far better than 122nd.

Where to from here?

All Whites coach Anthony Hudson at the Confederations Cup 2017.

All Whites coach Anthony Hudson at the Confederations Cup 2017. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Whether or not Hudson stays will ultimately be up to him and the offers he receives from elsewhere as the All Whites' gig can't be the most appealing for a foreigner with stock on the rise. There's no World Cup to prepare for and the national side plays so seldom it's often hard to believe the coaching position is a full-time gig.

New Zealand Football should work hard to keep the Englishman because he has built the depth, strength, work-rate and a belief in this side, but his future remains up in the air.

Most important for the team is more games against top opposition. It's not a new problem and there's no easy fix.

Playing the island nations does little for the All Whites and while direct entry for an Oceania team from the 2026 World Cup might be reason enough for New Zealand Football boss Andy Martin to want to stay, it will do little to improve the All Whites.

Martin's theory is the easier road to the sport's big show will mean more exposure for the national side which will help get better competition and money.

However, two games on the world's biggest stage every four years in a 48-team event will do little, possibly nothing, to improve the quality.

Following Australia into Asia still seems like the right choice for me, though it's not going to happen any time soon, if it all.

The competition the Australians have through the qualification process has made them a better team since they defected on 1 January 2006 and their 20-game qualification process to get to Russia has been brutal. That has to make them a better side.

It's time now to celebrate the All Whites' efforts and hopefully the national body makes the most of this brief and closing window of public interest to a) promote the game and b) take a good long look at how to improve our chances in the future.

*Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for more 12 years. His Parklands under-10 team was once so dominant, Matt got moved from left back to striker and scored accidentally off his shin.

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