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“Winston Reid and the fighting underdog spirit could bring New Zealand to Brazil”, says Jesse Edge

Immagine Jesse (from the left) playing against the United States at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup. (c) FIFA.com

It’s not that common to see a young player from New Zealand trying to make a name for himself in Italy, a country not very well known for its relationships with the “land of the long white cloud” when it comes to football. But this means little for Vicenza Calcio young gun Jesse Edge, who wants to be the first Kiwi of a long series to build a tradition of New Zealand footballers in the Mediterranean land.

An 18-year-old with experience at two youth World Cups, Jesse is considered by many as for the future and is part of the much-claimed golden generation which could bring smiles and success to the football lovers of the country for the years to come.

Your move to Vicenza seemed to have come out of nothing, as many thought you would have signed for an English clubs after your trials! Tell us about how it happened.

I had a trial in England at Birmingham City which fell through in the end. My now agent Stefano Tigani and Fillippo Contorno were talking with my manager Declan Edge and I about a trial here at Vicenza Calcio. The coaches liked what I had to offer and it all went from there.

According to you, which are the biggest differences between youth football in Italy and New Zealand?

I can’t judge really because I have played men’s football in New Zealand since the age of 14. The standard here is good and I am here to keep progressing myself as a player and moving forward. This is a very good experience for me and already I have learnt a lot.

You are the second New Zealander who has played for Vicenza in recent times, after Liam Graham spent two years in their youth system from 2010 to 2012. Do you think this growing relationship between the club and New Zealand could open the doors for other youngsters who aim to play in a top football nation in Europe?

Many young New Zealand players aspire to play in Europe. However, there is limited opportunities for young Kiwis to come to Europe. I hope that other young NZ footballers can become motivated by seeing what is possible for them if they put in the hard work and dedication.

Why would you recommend Italy as a possible destination for New Zealand players?

The football culture in Italy is incredible and the fans are very passionate about following their clubs. It is a great experience with the style of play and the atmosphere of the games here is second to none. It’s one of the best football countries in the world.

What have you enjoyed most of Italy in these few months you’ve spent there?

The people here have been very good to me. They are all very understanding and help me a lot with me speaking very little Italian. The coaching staff and team mates at the club have made it a good experience for me so far and I have learnt a lot from them. Also the gelato is very good!

What’s your target of the season?

My target for this season is to improve myself as a player and prepare for first team football. And also make an impact straight away for the team and play well.

Many of the players from the team that reached the round of 16 in the 2011 U-17 World Cup are now playing at professional level with prestigious clubs in Europe, such as Tim Payne at Blackburn, Bill Tuiloma at Olympique Marseille, Cameron Howieson with Burnley, Scott Basalaj with Partick Thistle and now you in Italy. Do you think that many of that squad (you included) could very well represent the backbone of the next generation of All Whites, maybe starting from the 2018 World Cup?

There is a group of very good young players coming through out of New Zealand at the moment. I think there is a very good chance that a good chunk of that 2011 U-17 World Cup team will kick on and play for the All Whites in the 2018 World Cup. Cam, Tim and Bill are already making their All Whites debut.

New Zealand is playing a crucial play-off with Mexico in November. Give us your final score, and tell which could be the key factor for the two-legged tie that could the All Whites a ticket to Brazil.

I think for New Zealand it will be two very tough fixtures as Mexico will be a quality opponent. Although in football everyone knows that anything can happen in two 90 minute games. I think that Mexico will be to tough for New Zealand at the Azteca Arena and will win 1-0, but I think at the fortress, Westpac Stadium, New Zealand will bring it back and win 2-0 (2-1 aggregate). The key factor for New Zealand will be Winston Reid and always that fighting underdog spirit.

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Two years after the World Cup – How much New Zealand football has progressed since 2010 South Africa’s heroics

All football fans around the world remember how amazing New Zealand’s achievements were at the last World Cup in South Africa. Especially for the world game’s supporters in the country, those moments seem like they happened yesterday.
But the reality is that we’re in April 2012, almost two years from those unforgettable heroics. Since then, how much has football progressed in New Zealand at any level?

The All Whites

Our obvious first analysis is to try to understand how the All Whites’ have managed to make a respectable name for themselves in this time.
The first datum that comes under eye is their FIFA ranking position: 130. Certainly it doesn’t reflect correctly their real worths and abilities, but if they’re classified under teams like Lichteinstein, Burundi, Namibia, Luxembourg and Saint Kitts & Nevis (with all the due respect to them), and considering that before the World Cup they were 82th, some questions need to be asked.

The first problem is isolation. New Zealand’s geographical collocation doesn’t encourage many big national teams to go there to play a friendly match. On the other hand it’s difficult for the All Whites to fly whole days to play somewhere else.
And this is the answer to their wretched ranking position: since the last World Cup, New Zealand has only played six matches, drawing twice and losing the leftovers.
This problem existed before the World Cup and will always exist, but there was the hope that they could have played some more games after shining in South Africa.

The second issue are their results after the WC:

New Zealand-Honduras 1-1 47’Wood (North Harbour Stadium, Auckland, 9/10/10)
New Zealand-Paraguay 0-2 (Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 12/10/10)
China-New Zealand 1-1 53’McGlinchey (Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, Wuhan, 25/3/11)
Mexico-New Zealand 3-0 (Invesco Field at Mile High, Denver, 1/6/11)
Australia-New Zealand 3-0 (Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, 5/6/11)
New Zealand-Jamaica 2-3 55’Wood 89’Killen (Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland, 29/2/12)

Four losses in six matches, only four goals scored, nine goals conceded in the last three encounters.
These numbers just show how poor have been the All Whites’ outcomes in these two years.
A premise is needed: it’s the first time in history that New Zealand arranges friendlies against oppositions like Paraguay at home, and we have to consider they were used to play against opponents with the likes of Tahiti, Vanuatu and Fiji. But winning games helps to build confidence and respect, so Ricki Herbert’s have to learn how to do it.

Consequently the next question is: why did New Zealand lose so many games?

After watching all these matches, we have to admit that opponents like Paraguay, Australia and Mexico (even if they were on dope when playing) are really too strong for them. These games overall served as experience for players, the result is a minor matter and shouldn’t be a worry.
The Jamaica game was a good experience too, despite the loss in a match where a young All Whites side deserved to win, as a preparation for the next play-off against the 4th CONCACAF team in the road to Brazil 2014.
And the draws to China and Honduras are acceptable as they’re on the same level of New Zealand.
We can definitely say that the results are miserable, but their usefulness has been huge.

A generational change

In two years the number of players under Ricki Herbert’s radar has significantly changed. Youngsters like Kosta Barbarouses, Marco Rojas, Michael Boxall and Michael Fitzgerald have all been introduced to the team, while some pundits (ex. Simon Elliott, Ivan Vicelich) are on their way to hanging up their national team boots.
Despite the scarce achievements, this new All Whites side has a considerable amount of talent and is a much better competitive crew, probably the best kiwis senior national team ever.
Comparing the 2012 All Whites with the 2010 WC heroes, these are the most important aspects to point out:

-Only seven players were based in Europe in 2010, while now there are eleven, only considering the ones who make regularly the All Whites squad (plus Cameron Howieson, who has become a first team member at Burnley at just 17)
-Four players are playing in the MLS (Boxall at Whitecaps, Boyens and Keat at LA Galaxy and Gleeson at Timbers), while just two were the US-based kiwis two years ago (Boyens at Red Bull New York and Elliott, who was even unattached in the tournament)
-There are ten u23 players currently involved in the All Whites, while there were six in South Africa (which was a considerable number anyway).

The tactical revolution

We all remember that the All Whites in South Africa seemed more to play rugby than football: they were extremely physical, they played long balls, they used more frequently their heads than their feet, they only thought to defend.
Infact they had the lowest percent of ball possession among all the teams in the tournament.
But it was an understandable approach to the game, considering that they were the underdogs of the group one of the humblest team of the competition.

Now they’ve started a new style of playing football. We can definitely say they’ve started to play football!
Their tactical system has totally changed. Ricki Herbert’s formation is a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 (in South Africa it was more a 5-4-1 or 7-2-1), and players’ characteristics are extremely different.
The wingers are quick, sfiwt and techinically skilled. For example against Jamaica, Herbert put Marco Rojas (5 ft 6 in, 20 years old) and Kosta Barbarouses (5 ft 7 in, 22 years old) on the wings, while the powerful Chris Wood (20 years old) was the only main striker in the team.
At the last World Cup, the three forwards (just on paper, because they defended for the whole games) were usually Shane Smeltz, Rory Fallon and Chris Killen. Smeltz was the smallest of them, with a height of 6 ft 1 in.
Players like Dan Keat in central midfield help team to build goalscoring attempts, while defenders like Winston Reid, who has immensely improved in this season, Tottenham’s Ryan Nelsen and Tommy Smith offer a good protection in defence.
The keeper will be no more a trouble for years, with the talented Jake Gleeson growing up fastly in the MLS and with Scott Basalaj catching the eye of several teams in the UK.

Youth improvements

Youth teams’ coaches don’t have to focus on results, but on players’ development. But necessarily for New Zealand’s circumstances, results are a good index of progress, just because facing Oceania teams force them to win with a considerable margin.

Under 17

The U17 showed how good has become youth football system in the country. Their performance at the U17 World Cup in Mexico was outstanding (with the exception of the heavy loss to Japan in the knockout stage), specially for their passing game on the pitch and their individual skills. It’s not a surprise if players like Cameron Howieson at Burnely have already made their debut in professional competitions, or others like Tim Payne at Blackburn Rovers have been signed by European teams.
These considerable improvements have been the consequence of a reasoned and very well organized planning, with the introduction of élite academies, like the Chelsea-linked APFA (Asian Pacific Football Academy), which are extremely prepared at youngsters’ growth.

Under 20

Basic skills development for players aged twenty has already been done and the Young All Whites performance at the last U20 World Cup proved they were still suffering the rugby’s influence that football has always had in New Zealand.
Chris Milicich’s side was similar to the 2010 All Whites squad, with a team that thought more to defend than other, made up of massive, physical players.
The results in Colombia were huge, specially the 1-1 draw with Uruguay, but it will be difficult to see some of these young kiwis playing professional football in the future, apart from some whizkid like Marco Rojas and Cameron Lindsay.

Under 23

The Oly-Whites can be be judged only after the Olympic Games in London, but the signals are not very promising after the qualification tournament held in Taupo in March, which saw them winning three of the four games played against the Pacific Islands narrowly.
The case is the same for the Young All Whites: the players have exceed the time of their best technical improvements and have been developed mostly on the physical dowries.

A little eye out of the pitch

The interest in football has generally grown in the country. The world game has become the most popular sport for boys under 15, and has officially become women’s national sport, with some Ferns playing at the biggest level in Europe (ex. Ria Percival playing the UEFA Champions League semifinal with his team FFC Frankfurt in Germany).
However the attendances have not been so exciting as expected, in particular for the Wellington Phoenix, the only professional franchise in the country.
There’s also the issue concerning the TV broadcasting rights, with Sky NZ that every time doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about paying for the All Whites’ matches.
To increase New Zealand football popularity the biggest step to take would be joining the Asian Football Confederation, with soccer-mad coutries like Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia who would be excited about the idea of facing an undefeated World Cup squad.

Conclusion

Despite the senior results on the pitch have been poor, New Zealand is trying to make the next, decisive step to become a real football team, in all his difficult circumstances for rugby’s influence on youth development.
The path is the right one, and in the future more talents will emerge in the country, with some good promising signs shown by the U17 side.
It’s hard to forecast where the country will be for Brazil 2014, but if they manage to further grow focussing on the technical and tactical aspects of the game, building international experience on the players’ shoulders with more friendly games to come and creating the right atmosphere for another crucial match like Bahrain in 2009, it won’t be utopia to see the All Whites in their second consecutive World Cup.

By Christian Rizzitelli  Follow me on 

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