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2009 NZ Football review

In front of a sell-out crowd at Wellington Stadium on November 14, the All Whites set New Zealand alight when they beat Bahrain 1-0 in a make-or-break match to qualify for the World Cup football finals for the first time in 27 years.

As 35,000 supporters, clad mainly in white clothing, chanted "All Whites, All Whites" from the stands, a change in the sporting mood of the country seemed evident.

Having held on for a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the qualifier against Bahrain in Manama in October, New Zealand were left needing a goal in the Wellington game to progress to the finals and striker Rory Fallon delivered just before halftime.

Soon after the interval, the country held its breath then roared with delight as goalkeeper Mark Paston made a penalty save. The determined New Zealanders managed to maintain their lead until the final whistle, securing not only their spot in the finals but also a nearly $14 million prize pot.

It was a brilliant end to the year for coach Ricki Herbert's All Whites, who hinted at future glories earlier in the year when they played in the Confederations Cup in South Africa.

After losing a warm-up match only 4-3 to world champions Italy, New Zealand recorded losses against Spain and South Africa, then secured a 0-0 draw against Iraq. It was New Zealand's best Confederations Cup showing.

The under-17 men's team also laid claim to a piece of football history in October-November when they became the first New Zealand team to progress to the second round of a World Cup, and, what's more, they did so without losing a match.

Their dream run came to an end when they were hammered 5-0 by hosts Nigeria, but coach Steve Cain was thrilled with his team's achievements.

"Today, against a world-class opponent, became a lesson that we need to go back to the drawing board on a number of things, learn from it and come back stronger next time," Cain said after the game.

"With what this group has achieved in a very short space of time, we should be very proud of them."

As the epic performances of the national sides turned heads, football grabbed the spotlight and Fallon suggested it was time for the sport to join rugby on the big stage.

"Rugby's rugby and football's football. We're not trying to take over. We just want a chance to be in the headlines," Fallon said.

"It's been a bad cloud over New Zealand football for many years... Don't get me wrong -- I love rugby, but sometimes we need a share of the limelight."

Captain Ryan Nelsen credited the All Whites' thrilling win against Bahrain to the home crowd, and also saluted the part played by the six Wellington Phoenix players in his squad.

"All the local lads were incredible. They played really well and won us the game," Nelsen said.

But the year for the A-League franchise Wellington Phoenix was somewhat of a mixed bag.

They finished the 2008/2009 season in sixth place after notching up seven wins, nine losses and five draws.

In September, they reached their milestone 50th game in the league, the first New Zealand-based team to achieve such a feat.

Club owner Terry Serepisos said reaching the 50-game mark was a huge achievement and a good indication of how the game was faring in New Zealand.

"It reflects the commitment to the club and the code that everyone involved at the Phoenix -- me as the club owner, the players, coaches and management and the fans -- shares," Serepisos said.

"To have lost professional football in New Zealand would have been a disaster. To see how the success of the Phoenix has contributed to the growth of the game nationwide is hugely gratifying and the future looks extremely bright for us as an organisation and, indeed, for football in general."

The following month, the team gave their "Yellow Fever" fan section something to rip their tops off for, when they ended a run of six consecutive draws with a 6-0 thrashing of top-of-the-table team Gold Coast in Wellington, equalling the league's record score gap.

The cheeky supporters were in no hurry to forget the remarkable game, launching a chant of "We want seven" at the start of the following week's match.

A run of problems hit the team going into December, including suspensions and injuries, and a disappointing 1-1 home draw to a 10-man Melbourne, followed up by a 1-0 loss to Sydney, also a player down, dropped Wellington from their top-six position.

Regardless of how the team end the year, Herbert will be back for at least another season, having signed a one-year contract extension just one game into the season, in August.

Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata said he was delighted to have Herbert on board for another season, adding that he was the best coach in the country and one of the best in the A-League.

Herbert has been widely praised for his work with the All Whites and the Phoenix this year and is in line for a Halberg coach of the year award.

Indeed, it could be a Halberg bonanza for football with the All Whites nominated for team of the year, and Nelsen and Fallon both up for sportsman of the year.

Auckland City had huge success at the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, beating African confederation champions TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo 3-2 in a fifth-place playoff.

The win will prove beneficial to each of the New Zealand National Football Championship franchises, along with New Zealand Football, all to take a share of the $2 million prize money.

The most memorable result on the domestic scene was Wellington Olympic's 2-1 Chatham Cup final victory over Aucklanders Three Kings United.

It was Olympic's first Chatham Cup victory, and the first time they had reached the final since 1994, and it had the Wellington Greek community in raptures.

The big question for New Zealand football now is: where to from here?

With the 2010 World Cup looming, and New Zealand drawn to play Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia and to rub shoulders with the shakers and movers of world football, it seems the sport will grab its fair share of the headlines again next year.



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