Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: The hard truth of All Whites 'easy draw'

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The All Whites avoided the so-called groups of death, but they've hardly ended up in a place of abundant life either.

The Saturday morning thrill of watching Charlize Theron opening lotto balls and David Beckham managing to balance a raccoon on his head (or was that a haircut?) at the World Cup draw should not obscure the fact New Zealand face a mother of a task in South Africa next year.

Fair play to any among the great and the good who inject high optimism into their predictions. Former All Whites captain Danny Hay talked of beating Slovakia - not an impossible result, but still a very unlikely one.

The country will get behind our soccer heroes, and those in and around the game will hope this campaign launches bigger and better things for the world sport in our backyard.

But from the moment Fifa put North Korea in the same pot as New Zealand, meaning they would not be in the same group, and once the All Whites missed out on being drawn with the beleaguered hosts, it was set in stone that this was going to be a very tough assignment for our mixture of Ryan Nelsen, English club battlers, A-League exponents and the odd local club bravehearts.

Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia do not equal a horrendous group, such as the North Koreans have found themselves in (Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal), but I wouldn't start waving the picnic blanket yet.

The World Cup-holders, Italy, are as cynical and clinical as any World Cup opponent can get. Their teams belie the stereotypical Italian image, that of expressive people, and are more likely to reflect the country's famous dark and controlling underbelly.

The plus side, for the All Whites, is that Italy are still relying on a core of players from their 2006 World Cup triumph. They are an ageing team not known for scoring a lot of goals and traditionally claw their way into World Cup tournaments rather than hit the ground running. We may get smashed on the field, but it may not be reflected on the scoreboard.

If Italy get an early goal or two, they may even shut up shop - as only they can do - rather than attempt a scoring spree.

But it is difficult to see New Zealand holding the ball for any sort of period against them, nor threatening to break down their claustrophobic defending.

To fail in any sort of way against New Zealand would be a national disgrace. The Italians will be ruthless.

Yes, the All Whites were remarkable in a 4-3 friendly defeat against the Italians in South Africa in June, a situation so unexpected and almost bizarre. It was a stunning performance, truly stunning, but playing the best Italian side in a World Cup finals match will be another world.

For a start, the Italians are likely to be cohesive under Marcello Lippi guidance and will have done a lot more homework on us by then. Paraguay and Slovakia are a good 40 places above New Zealand in the world rankings, and not without reason.

World rankings, in any sport, tend to lose their significance the deeper you go into the list. They aren't a bible, but are still reasonably prophetic.

Paraguay and Slovakia are not glamour sides and have few well-known players, but that is of scant comfort. Just because we don't know much about them is no reason to start thinking the All Whites might be capable of an outrageous upset.

Slovakia offer the All Whites their biggest hope, but the Slovaks have a vein of quality built around the young Italian-based captain and attacking midfielder, Marek Hamsik. It takes something very good to finish on top in a qualifying group that includes the Czech Republic and Poland.

Paraguay are World Cup finals regulars, a tough side with some South American flair, although they are not noted for goal rampages. They are known, however, for beating Brazil in the qualifiers. That is a world away from our soccer.

You suspect these two sides will be hungry, committed, desperate teams, with a rich advantage in skill over the All Whites. Both will be playing for genuine chances of reaching the knockout stage.

One of the problems, I feel, for Ricki Herbert will be deciding on an approach against these two. Does he set up a formation to keep his team in the game and the score down, or does he genuinely seek goals and risk being overly exposed elsewhere.

My understanding is that the All Whites will - as should be expected - genuinely pursue victory against Slovakia, and that Herbert believes his side is not at its best when asked to do a holding job.

Italy's mood may depend heavily on how they have already performed in their opener against Paraguay. World Cup predictions can last fewer rounds than Shane Cameron did against David Tua.

In one of soccer's most famous falls from grace, 1998 world champions France crashed to Senegal in 2002, sending them on a path to early elimination that was not even paved by a goal.

Paraguay may well go into the final group game against the All Whites knowing victory will get them into the knockout stage, which will make them extremely difficult opponents.

The All Whites were given a remarkable lifeline into this tournament and got there on a shoestring of talent. It could easily snap, and to do anything but see our prospects in realistic terms won't do anyone any favours.

We are absolute minnows in the global game, with skill short of the usual on this stage. Our planning under Herbert has become highly technical and will be thorough, but we may also need luck on our side just to be credible.

We are justifiably and immensely proud of what our 1982 team achieved against enormous odds, but while the game has moved on from then, our place in the soccer world has not.

In the English writer Brian Glanville's excellent book on the tournament's history, The Story of the World Cup, he made just one reference to our 1982 team in Spain, describing them as "clumsy".

That remains the world view of us. Technique-wise, by world standards, we are still strugglers and will rely heavily on set pieces and aerial ability.

The All Whites' task is overwhelmingly daunting, but then again, not without any hope.

But you have to feel sorry for those North Koreans - and not only because they are under the iron rule of a loony.

If New Zealand had drawn Brazil, Portugal and dark horse World Cup picks the Ivory Coast, then the skerrick of optimism that may have come through in this column would have been impossible to find.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Read more by Chris Rattue

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