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Rugby spurned as Kiwis go soccer crazy

By James Montague, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New Zealand vying for only its second appearance at a World Cup finals
  • They face Bahrain in Wellington, who they drew 0-0 against in Manama
  • Fans have gone football crazy with 35,000 tickets for Saturday's match selling out almost instantly
  • Rugby union, the country's national sport, takes a back seat as football grips the nation
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(CNN) -- It took less than a week for the 35,000 available tickets for New Zealand's next home international, taking place this Saturday at Wellington's Westpac Stadium, to sell out.

In a country obsessed with sport and where rugby union, the national game, commands an almost religious devotion, this might not sound unusual.

But it wasn't the All Blacks that had captured a country's imagination. It was the All Whites, New Zealand's occasionally maligned and often ignored national football team who stand 90 minutes away from a place at the 2010 World Cup finals.

The champions of Oceania face Bahrain in the second leg of a do-or-die World Cup play off on Saturday. The first leg ended 0-0, meaning that victory will propel them to only their second appearance at the World Cup, following their debut in the 1982 finals in Spain.

"There has been unprecedented interest in this game, which is great for all our long-suffering fans as our glories are few and far between," said Frank Van Hattum, who was the goalkeeper during that tournament and is now president of the New Zealand Football Association. "It's like 28 years ago. The whole country is mobilized."

Also playing that summer was Ricki Herbert, now coach of the All Whites, who is charged with negotiating his team past a tough Bahrain side, who have already taken the scalps of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan thus far.

"Any team who has beaten Saudi Arabia back-to-back will be tough [and] Australia found Bahrain hard too," Herbert told CNN pitch side after the first leg. "We wanted to take the tie back home to have a chance and we did that."

There has been unprecedented interest in this game, which is great for all our long-suffering fans
--Frank Van Hattum

The prospect of qualification has reinvigorated a love for football that has lain dormant since the team traveled to Spain. As members of the Oceania Confederation, which has no direct entry into the World Cup finals due to the fact that it is largely made up of small, Pacific island states, New Zealand has rarely come close to making it to the finals since.

But Australia's decision to jump ship and join the Asian Football Confederation changed everything. With only New Caledonia and Fiji to beat, they became continental champions and booked a place at last summer's Confederations Cup which pitted New Zealand against European champions Spain. Although the 5-0 mauling wasn't a shock, the 0-0 draw against Asian champions Iraq was, and gave the All Whites hope.

"There's a revival of football in New Zealand, and not just with the All Whites," explained Coen Lammers, deputy editor of daily newspaper The Press, who has covered most World Cups over the past 20 years.

"With the Wellington Phoenix [New Zealand's sole representative in Australia's professional A League] there's a real momentum. They beat the top team 6-0 and won 3-0 at the weekend. [Gold Coast striker] Shane Smeltz is red hot in Australia at the moment. Six or seven of our players are playing in pro leagues."

We worked out that Ryan Nelsen was earning more than the entire All Blacks squad put together
--Coen Lammers

In fact, the All Whites' success has got New Zealand's more established sports looking over their shoulders. Whilst the New Zealand Football Association has had to beg the authorities to construct temporary stands for extra seats to satisfy demand --asking for 4,000 but only being granted permission to build room for 500 more -- interest in rugby union has plummeted.

Last weekend's Air New Zealand Cup final between Canterbury and Wellington, the climax of the country's top domestic rugby union competition, saw just 12,000 fans turn up at the 40,000 capacity AMI Arena in Christchurch.

And the rugby union World Cup, due to be held in 2011, is already predicted to make a huge loss of NZ$40 [US$30] million after domestic ticket sale estimates were drastically slashed.

"There's a massive turnoff for rugby at the moment," explained Lammers. "With the Air New Zealand Cup, they had the players going to the malls to sell tickets. There is a real battle going on. Football is the most popular participatory sport. People don't understand rugby any more because of the rule changes and there's just too much of it. Even when there's a big event like the Air New Zealand Cup, we didn't put that on the front page because sales just die."

And although domestic football is in a poor state, the global game offers opportunities to sportsmen that rugby players can only dream of. "We worked out that [New Zealand and Blackburn Rovers captain] Ryan Nelsen was earning more than the entire All Blacks squad put together," revealed Lammers. "No one knew who he was. He went away, played in obscurity and then, suddenly, he's leading his team out against John Terry."

This Saturday's crowd at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington will easily break the record for a football match in New Zealand. Significantly, the crowd will be bigger than the All Black's last two home tests against France and Australia.

With the country gripped by World Cup fever, eager for a victory that will propel New Zealand towards football's top table, the ex players now behind New Zealand's push for the finals hope that a place in the finals will cement the game's revival.

"Making it was one thing and not making fools of ourselves when we got there was another but I think we gave a good show of ourselves," said Van Hattum, recalling the matches he played in against Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil almost three decades ago.

"But it [the World Cup] has spin offs, it gives football credibility. We will create heroes, stars and superstars. And kids get off on that."