The World Cup 2018 should have proven one thing, beyond all doubt, to Kiwi football fans.
Population does not matter.
Yes, it helps if you have a big player base but, if you choose to use your resources effectively, then a small country can succeed on the global stage.
Of the final eight teams in the tournament Croatia has a population of 4.2 million, Uruguay 3.4 million, Sweden 10.1 million and Belgium 11.3 million. The other four quarter-finalists Brazil, France, England, and Russia have big populations but so do the likes of the USA, China, and Turkey who failed to qualify for the Finals.
We shouldn’t be hiding behind population as an excuse. We don’t in other sports at which we excel so certainly shouldn’t be lowering our expectations and aspirations to what is possible in football.
The second key takeaway is that leaders make a difference.
By building the collective capabilities of a squad and team spirit, some countries have performed beyond expectations.
Sweden is perhaps the best example at this World Cup.
Manager Janine Anderson has taken a squad with no stars, with the possible exception of striker Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig), and turned them into a tough uncompromising unit.
Good enough to get past the Netherlands in qualifying and then perennial qualifiers Italy in a playoff, the Swedes have had a tough run at the World Cup but prevailed. An opening victory against South Korea, unlucky loss to Germany, 3-0 trouncing of Mexico, and a 1-0 knockout win over Switzerland (6th in the current FIFA rankings) have demonstrated their resilience.
Gareth Southgate, manager of England, has achieved a similar outcome.
Not given much chance before the tournament, the English have exorcised the demons of three World Cup defeats on penalties after getting past talented Colombia. England has played some good football and possesses one of the genuinely world class players in Russia – Spurs striker Harry Kane.
Both Sweden and England have squads that work hard for each other.
It will be fascinating to see how both nations progress over the next five years, particularly with traditional European rivals appearing to be in a state of transition.
Unfortunately, for New Zealand fans, we do not have the same institutional leadership in our local game.
The depressing comments by Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf were tough to take for anyone who wants the best for our national teams.
When closely followed by the shameful behaviour of New Zealand Football CEO Andy Martin in failing to address bullying allegations in the Football Ferns environment, it is apparent that appropriate leadership in our local game from people who should be leaders is virtually non-existent.
NZF President Deryck Shaw has provided negligible condemnation of both Heraf and Martin. Thankfully Martin has since departed his role but given the comments (or lack thereof) by the President don’t hold your breath on any meaningful change regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Sport New Zealand review into NZF.
Instead, it is down to the New Zealand football community to take a stronger position in taking care of our sport. Clubs, in particular, need to have a clear idea on development of the game if we want the Football Ferns and All Whites to be genuinely competitive at World Cups in the future.
Rather than look to NZF, it is down to each of us to take the lead on how the game should be played, coached, and supported.
Perhaps the greatest insight from Russia 2018 so far is that nothing stays still in football – just ask fans of the last two finalists Argentina and Germany.
But for positive change to happen we need to do away with the myth of population and have real leadership within the NZ football community to take the game forward. Each of us can make a difference.
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