What is the future for New Zealand football? It’s a question that is currently being debated by the country’s governing body, New Zealand Football (NZF).
The ASB Premiership is New Zealand’s premier domestic club competition and has just completed its 11th season with the close of the 2014-15 campaign. The league began life as the NZFC back in 2004 as a primarily franchise-based competition to replace the old club-based National League. In its 11 seasons, it has been won by one of the two original Auckland sides, Auckland City and Waitakere United.
The two Auckland clubs have subsequently competed at the FIFA World Club Championship, culminating in an impressive showing by Auckland City in 2014 tournament in Morocco. There the side reached the Semi-Final stage after beating Moroccan side, Moghreb Tétouan, and Algerian champions, ES Sétif. A narrow 2-1 defeat after extra-time to Argentine side, San Lorenzo, ultimately put paid to what had been an amazing journey for the part-timers.
However, elsewhere there is the fully professional Wellington Phoenix who ply their trade in the Australian Hyundai A-League. The Phoenix formed in 2007 and began play in the 2007-08 season after having been awarded the sole New Zealand-based license by Football Federation Australia (FFA). The side had originally been based in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, at the league’s inception in 2005 but performed poorly. Two seasons saw the club finish rock bottom of the A-League, winning just 6 games out of a total of 42 over both campaigns. Average crowds of 3,000-4,000 in both seasons told a story of apathy among the Auckland footballing public.
Wellington-based businessman, Terry Serepisos, rode to the rescue of the troubled club and formed the Wellington Phoenix in the nation’s capital. And immediately the situation looked far brighter as the club’s gates increased markedly, being based at the central and state of the art facility, Westpac Stadium. Ricki Herbert was also appointed as the club’s first Coach having put together a good run of form at the end of the Knights’ existence.
Serepisos and Herbert may be long gone from the Phoenix now, but the club continues to provide a stable environment for professional football in New Zealand, experiencing a superb season in 2014-15 with a 4th place finish. The side, under the charge of Ernie Merrick, missed out on an Asian Champions League qualifying spot on only goal difference from Adelaide United.
So the question must be asked, if the A-League can work in Wellington and the ASB Premiership could soon be replaced by yet another domestic competition, is it possible that the A-League is the future for New Zealand football?
The A-League now has 10 teams but has already experienced the loss of poor-performing franchises on the other side of the Tasman Sea too. North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United have both fallen by the wayside in the past. That said, there are several groups interested in bringing an A-League franchise to their cities / towns. For one, there is still no team in Australia’s national capital, Canberra. Darwin, Cairns, Geelong, Hobart and Wollongong have also been mentioned. But are there other cities in New Zealand that could realistically host A-League football? Here are some possibilities:
The Queen City is the obvious choice for expansion in New Zealand. A city of 1.5 million people and by far the largest in the country, there is a very diverse population and much of that comes from football-loving nations in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. There is also no problem when it comes to facilities. North Harbour Stadium (aka QBE Stadium) has a capacity of 25,000 and is modern. However, being based in the far northern suburb of Albany makes it difficult for those who live south of the harbour. So a more central venue might be Mount Smart Stadium in Penrose. It’s only 10km south of the CBD, has a healthy capacity of 30,000 and has a tradition for football. Many of the All Whites World Cup Qualifiers from past years have been played here as well as the old NSL side, Football Kingz. Lastly, there is Eden Park. It’s closest to the CBD (3km), handy for rail and bus links and has been revamped for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It’s capacity of 50,000 is impressive although some may point to it being a bit excessive for A-League games. Facilities aside, Auckland is also the business hub of New Zealand these days and possibly the most likely to provide a financial backing. Perhaps, if the ASB Premiership is no more, Auckland City could move into the void with its prosperous Croatian backers? Men like Ivan Vuksich certainly know the score when it comes to running a sound football club in the city.
Like Auckland, Christchurch has a big football tradition in New Zealand. Former National League clubs such as Christchurch United and Rangers have flown the flag for the Canterbury province at various points and one of New Zealand’s most famous exports in recent years, Ryan Nelsen, hails from the city. The All Whites have also regularly played in the city in the past. Add to that, a healthy crowd of 19,276 when the Phoenix took a game to the city’s AMI Stadium in January 2010, and there’s a definite appetite for football down south. The first main problem with Christchurch at present could be the lack of a suitable venue. AMI Stadium was sadly condemned after the recent earthquakes that shook the city, and QEII Stadium is also no more, as of 2012. Rugby League Park (aka the new AMI Stadium), with its capacity of 18,000 could be considered a suitable venue for a Christchurch side to play in the immediate future. With AMI Stadium (aka Jade Stadium) possibly being rebuilt in the future, a more suitable home may become available.
Roughly an hour’s drive south of Auckland is Waikato’s administrative centre, Hamilton. New Zealand’s 4th most populous city could also be capable of hosting A-League football if the right backer can be found. Certainly a facility wouldn’t be a problem. The Waikato Stadium is modern and has a capacity of over 25,000. Hamilton also has its own international airport which would allow for suitable transport links for teams arriving from / departing to Australia. The city has also been a mainstay in New Zealand’s football competitions in the past with clubs such as Meville United and Hamilton Wanderers carrying the mantle. Many will point to the problems experienced by ASB Premiership sides in the region, such as Waikato FC, but it should also be remembered that an A-League side would be run and marketed in a vastly different way.
The final city that may possibly support an A-League franchise is the Otago city of Dunedin. One thing the city has over its rivals is the state-of-the-art facility at Forsyth Barr Stadium. The roofed facility has a capacity of over 30,000 for football and has been used by both the All Whites and Wellington Phoenix in the recent past. When the Phoenix took on Brisbane Roar in August 2011, the stadium hosted over 15,000 fans showing that there is a market for a professional product of the sport in the city.
Now, I am not naive. I have lived in New Zealand, watched countless games there and also attended meetings among committees there. I know how hard it is to get fans, players and administrators singing from the same hymn sheet where football is concerned. That said, I personally believe that the A-League is the future of New Zealand football, and the more clubs the country can get entered into the competition, the better. It needn’t be to the detriment of established local clubs in New Zealand’s cities. Players would have a clear pathway and there are plenty of partnership schemes that could be forged with Northern, Central, Mainland and Football South regional leagues. Any New Zealand A-League sides could also enter the Chatham Cup. It works with the Canadian MLS teams and their lower leagues. The winner of that competition could then go on to represent New Zealand at the OFC Champions League (although this obviously precludes them from qualifying for the Asian Champions League).
Whatever the outcome, let us hope the NZF can come up with a sustainable plan for the national game and one which will also benefit the All Whites. There is so much talent in New Zealand and for it not to shine on the biggest stages would be criminal.