FIFA U-17 World Cup: In the land of rugby, football slowly finding its feet
New Zealand Under-17 football team coach and skipper, who are in India for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, talks about the resurgence of the sport back in the south Pacific island nationfifa u17 world cup 2017 Updated: Sep 25, 2017 21:49 IST
Much like how it is in India, an aspiring footballer in New Zealand is unlikely to make it to the top of the country’s sporting pyramid.
“If as a young player, I had said that my aspiration was to become a professional footballer, people would have laughed because it just wasn’t seen as something you could achieve in New Zealand back then,” Danny Hay, the coach of the New Zealand U-17 team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, tells Hindustan Times.
Like how cricket is in India, rugby dominates the sporting landscape of New Zealand with the All Blacks, the all-conquering national rugby team over-shadowing all other, including the Black caps, the national cricket team which made it to the last ICC World Cup final.
However, a gentle, yet steady, wind of change is blowing in New Zealand and football is acquiring a foothold. And it’s happening at the level it really matters -- at the grassroots.
“It’s all changing now. Football is growing massively. There are more young kids playing football than any other sport, more than rugby, more than cricket, and considerably more. In terms of participation in team sports it’s No 1.” Hay, who has previously captained the All Whites, the national football team, adds.
Max Mata, the captain of the New Zealand team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, concurs.
“Football in New Zealand may not be the biggest sport but it’s growing,” says Mata, who has been playing football since the age of three. “I think it is the fastest growing sport. More and more parents are starting to push their kids towards football. It’s starting to evolve as a game in the country, right through the ages up to the senior team.”
Tracing the differences from his early days and today, coach Danny Hay highlights the rise of Kiwi footballers on the global circuit as a motivational factor.
“When I was a younger player, there probably wasn’t a pathway in terms of football,” says Hay. “There wasn’t a U-17 national team or U-20 team. All we had was the All Whites (senior team).
“We had one player who had made it as a professional -- Wynton Rufer. But outside of that it was seen as a very small sport,” adds Hay, who has earned 35 caps for New Zealand. “Now we have Chris Wood (Burnley FC) and Winston Reed (West Ham United), both at the Premier League in England at the moment. There’s a pathway through the American universities, which a lot of players are taking up.”
Wynton Rufer, a Kiwi football legend, has made close to 250 appearances for leading German outfit Werder Bremen.
India’s growing football revolution has highlighted the need for quality coaches and players to work together to be able to compete at the global stage. In New Zealand too, a similar need seems to have found its voice.
“We are a country of just 5 million people and so the reality is that it’s going to take time our youth to develop into really good senior players and for the senior national team to be able to compete at the highest possible level,” Hay elaborates. “It’s all going to come down to quality coaches working with quality players. And then of course we hope to see the fruits of the labour in the national teams.”
Another similarity between the two upcoming football nations is the lack of sustainable opportunities in football. The Indian Super League (ISL) may have brought in a ray of hope for long-term stability to footballers in India, but New Zealand still lacks a professional football league.
“The league in New Zealand is an amateur league so players have to work to survive as well. There might be the odd occasion where players can combine some coaching with playing, but essentially it means that they are doing a bit of work,” reveals Hay.
“But with Wellington Phoenix, the first professional team from the country, plying in the Australia’s A-league there is a full time job there,” adds the former All Whites skipper as an indicator towards the Phoenix becoming New Zealand’s most legitimate pathway to a full time job in football.