Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Taking a punt best for game


"Somebody said that it couldn't be done

But he with a grin replied

He'd not be the one to say it couldn't be done

Leastways, not til he'd tried.

So he buckled right in, with the trace of a grin;

By golly, he went right to it.

He tackled The Thing That Couldn't Be Done

... and he couldn't do it."

Apologies to Edgar Guest, the rustic, rather syrupy poet who came up with the original version of the above which had the homespun hero triumphing over The Thing That Couldn't Be Done; an aspirational invocation re persistence and spirit.

The bastardised version came to mind after hearing that New Zealand Football is baulking over the cost of getting Paraguay here to play the All Whites; and that China aren't coming because they wanted to play two internationals and NZF wanted only one.

Memories of that night in Wellington when they beat Bahrain to qualify for the World Cup and that marvellous unbeaten run in South Africa have dimmed a little now. The taste of triumph has given way to a new, dry feeling in the mouth.

It's anticipation, mingling with a touch of fear - will New Zealand football maintain its splendid momentum or will it whistle harmlessly over the crossbar, like so many of the shots in South Africa with the Jabulani ball?

The Bahrain match was the single best sporting event in New Zealand last year, ahead of even the David Tua-Shane Cameron bout. Seldom, if ever, has a New Zealand sporting crowd - and those watching on TV - been moved to such expression.

The feeling at the Cake Tin that night was more than sport; it was the previously suppressed roar of a tiny country that has punched above its weight in sport for generations; finally finding something that lived up to that tradition.

There have been disappointments in New Zealand sport on the world stage in recent years; not least from the traditional torch bearers, the All Blacks. The Cake Tin that night didn't provide mere crumbs of comfort; it gave us the whole cheesecake.

So did the unexpected competence and efficiency of the All Whites at the World Cup. A nation took another long look at football then - and liked what it saw.

In the aftermath of that win against Bahrain, there was a whole week of ridiculously ramped up expectations about New Zealand football. Those expecting football suddenly to flower into a mainstream sport in this country were having a wee seizure. There were some impossibly stupid comments about football taking over from rugby.

There has been a chant repeated endlessly since that magic night in Wellington: "Don't stuff it up this time."

The inference was that the last time the All Whites went to the World Cup, an enormous growth opportunity was missed. In the vanguard of such comments at that time was All Whites coach Ricki Herbert.

Yes, said NZF. We know what we have to do.

The road ahead for football is, unfortunately, still a long, hard and winding one; just as it was in 1982. There is an opportunity to be grasped but it's also a nettle. There are logistical and financial impediments to getting the All Whites to play regularly on the international stage - but that's what must be done.

So what are we hearing now? It's too expensive to import Paraguay and China have pulled out because they wanted to play us twice.

I mean ... huh?

Herbert's impassioned advocacy for the growth of the game on the back of getting to South Africa had an unspoken sub-clause: I've done my job, you do yours. It also meant Herbert positioned himself as clear of blame if there is any subsequent lack of achievement in fostering the game in this country.

Yet one wonderful game and World Cup tournament still does not make a new dawn. The NZF still have work to do. Much of the financial windfall from the World Cup has been either invested or distributed. Much play has been made of the investment in grassroots and kids. Fair enough - it's vital.

But it isn't the full story. Football in this country will grow only if the national team is playing consistently. The grassroots are one thing - but we want to see the bush in full bloom. It's the flowers that attract the bees that make the honey.

Our national team has barely played in recent times before the World Cup. For Pete's sake, the previous time we played the Australians was 2005. Surely regular transtasman clashes have to happen regardless of the World Cup. So too do international clashes with other countries, regardless of whether top players are constricted by their clubs.

NZF can't go all Little League on us now; protectively cuddling their little piggy bank while anxiously searching the horizon for an approaching rainy day. New Zealand's football star will never be as bright. It's time to play a few bold cards.

When he was chief executive, Graham Seatter arranged for several international fixtures. All right, NZF had to go cap in hand when the financial situation got a bit dire - but that was then.

Surely now, NZF has to be working their little adidas studs down to the soles of their boots to find sponsors, backers or benefactors willing to make things like Paraguay or China happen.

Losing money is one thing. Losing support now would be a disaster.

Paraguay are a self-explanatory good idea. But why let China escape because they wanted to play two games here? Are you kidding? China are a coming force in the game and a FIFA darling. Getting into bed with them seems smart.

There seems little doubt that NZF has the brains and the ability to leap to the next level. Maybe what's needed is the right go-ahead, let's-do-it, damn the torpedoes, urgent attitude. Take a punt.

We all know, deep down, that Edgar Guest was right; that The Thing That Can't Be Done can be.

But it takes balls To Do It.

- Herald on Sunday

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