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Youthful Kiwis eye early redemption

New Zealand celebrate Shane Smeltz's goal.

The last decade for New Zealand has been one of vastly contrasting experiences. Exiting at the group stage of the 2004 OFC Nations Cup was corrected during the next cycle as the All Whites were crowned Oceania champions, before then ending a 28-year drought by qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. New Zealand’s status in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking reflected their ebb and flow, with the Kiwis falling as low as 156 in September 2007 and rising to a near all-time high of 49 exactly three years later.

Now, almost two years since they exited South Africa 2010 undefeated - despite being in a group that included world champions Italy - New Zealand have hit an unforeseen bump. The All Whites last Sunday concluded a disappointing OFC Nations Cup, which included a semi-final defeat at the hands of New Caledonia and, with it, the chance to claim successive continental titles for the first time.

Equally disappointing for coach Ricki Herbert was the failure to qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, with unheralded Polynesians Tahiti securing Oceania’s berth thanks to their historic win in the final. New Zealand featured in their FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009, and their experiences undoubtedly held them in good stead for the return to the Rainbow Nation a year later.

Chance for salvation nears
However, despite the failure, New Zealand did achieve Herbert’s stated primary aim for the tournament: qualification for the third and final stage of Brazil 2014 preliminaries. Along with New Zealand, the three other semi-finalists at the eight-nation tournament – New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Tahiti - will all feature when qualifying resumes later this year. The victor will then advance to a two-legged intercontinental play-off and the chance to progress to Brazil 2014.

The next stage of Oceania qualifying will be played in a home-and-way format, which will be a welcome relief to the Kiwis who, like all participants, faced a punishing schedule of five matches in ten days amid Honiara's heat and humidity. After narrowly winning the first two matches against Fiji and Papua New Guinea, New Zealand conceded a second-half equaliser against host nation Solomon Islands denting their hopes of a clean sweep in Group B. New Zealand subsequently lost their semi-final 2-0 against New Caledonia, and with that defeat went hopes of passage to Brazil 2013.

*Young brigade in the spotlight *Herbert opted for a youth-orientated side in the third-place play-off against Solomon Islands and the move not only paid dividends, but gives hope that the new breed can achieve success. With veteran campaigners Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott, as well as rapidly developing West Ham defender Winston Reid, unavailable for the OFC Nations Cup, Herbert elected for experimentation in the final outing of the tournament.

Herbert rang the changes, fielding a side with eight players who are eligible for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, with the remaining three in the starting XI all under 25. “Today was about making a small dent back in our reputation,” said Herbert after defeating Solomon Islands. “And also getting our World Cup campaign back on track.”

“We threw that task to a really young group. It’s probably the youngest team I’ve put out on the pitch. There was a lot of responsibility for them to step up. The hurt (from the campaign) is not going away from me for a long time but maybe today (winning the third-place play-off) has taken a little bit away.”

New Zealand’s squad in the Solomon Islands featured ten players with ten appearances or less, including four yet to be capped in a full international. Notable amongst this group were teenagers Tim Payne (18) and Cameron Howieson (17) who both featured at last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. It could well prove to be that New Zealand’s next generation of stars make the difference as the All Whites hunt an unprecedented second successive FIFA World Cup appearance.

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