Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Aussie past counts for nix

Combative Phoenix midfielder Vince Lia. Photo / Getty Images
Combative Phoenix midfielder Vince Lia. Photo / Getty Images

Former Australian international Vince Lia is switching allegiance to New Zealand and could turn out for the All Whites this year.

The Phoenix stalwart, who has been with the Wellington club since 2007, is in the process of applying for citizenship and will then need clearance from Fifa. He will theoretically be eligible for the All Whites in May, the month marking five years of residence in New Zealand (the Fifa requirement for transfer of nationality).

New Zealand Football has petitioned the Department of Internal Affairs to fast-track the documentation process. It is hoped that his citizenship application will be finalised in the next two months.

Lia represented Australia at under-20 and under-23 level, with his last game a 2007 Olympic qualifier ahead of the Beijing Olympics. He captained his country at the 2003 Under-17 World Cup and 2005 Under-20 World Cup and made more than 30 appearances for his country of birth at youth level.

The 26-year-old says a switch first crossed his mind back in late 2008, on a Phoenix trip to Perth.

"Ricki Herbert pulled me aside one morning when the team were having a coffee," Lia told the Herald on Sunday. "He started talking about me being in the All Whites. At the time, I took it with a grain of salt - it was a long way down the track - but after a while, I began to think why not? Anyone would like the chance to play international football."

Lia realised he was unlikely to be a Socceroo, given the vast depth of talent across the Tasman. After missing a squad camp before a 2007 qualifier due to injury, Lia says he has heard nothing since. But he still relates more to 'fair dinkum' than 'sweet as'.

"I love this country but I do still feel like an Aussie - I'm still on the 'Aussie team' at Phoenix training, for example, though maybe that will change in a few months. If I got to play for the All Whites, it would feel funny at first, especially if we played Australia, but after a while, I think I would get used to it."

"I have no qualms about him making himself available for New Zealand because it is far from unique," says Herbert. "Lots of countries are doing it now."

Lia has been copping some flak from fellow Australians at the Phoenix, though Andrew Durante is also earmarked as a possible future All White.

"I hope they will be happy if I make it," says Lia. "If not, they will just have to deal with it."

Nothing is ever guaranteed in football but it seems Lia has an inside track into the All Whites. Herbert is a huge fan of his combative style and he has been a virtual ever-present when fit down the years at the Phoenix.

"It could work out well both for us [New Zealand football] and Vinnie," says Herbert. "We considered it and Vinnie is comfortable with it, so we decided to go ahead. There is still a process to be followed and hopefully it works out so that he will be available for the All Whites."

Unlike the situation with defenders and strikers, there is still a dearth of centre midfielders at the highest level. Lia would bring solidity and starch but is less of an attacking threat; he has scored just twice in 73 games for the Phoenix.

At international level, Tim Brown is of similar ilk - more of a defensive destroyer than cunning creator, his game is more about pursuit and passion than passing and precision.

In tandem, Brown and Lia would be present a solid wall but few creative outlets. There could still be room for a player such as Michael McGlinchey, a genuine goal-scoring threat and talented dribbler.

If selected, Lia could also be an option at right back. It was a position so problematic that Herbert basically discontinued the role after the 2009 Confederations Cup when various candidates were found wanting.

Herbert made the move to a defensive trio in the World Cup play-offs against Bahrain and has continued with it ever since.

However, it does have limitations and perhaps Lia, who played at right back for most of his youth, could be an option in the position.

"Over the last five seasons, I've seen what Vinnie is capable of and if he becomes available, it will give me a few more options," says Herbert. "Right fullback has always been a bit of a problem for [the All Whites] and Vinnie was brought to the Phoenix to play there."

Lia favours central midfield but would not be choosy: "If it means I would play, then no problem," says Lia of playing fullback. "I'd be happy to play there and confident I could do the job."

- Herald on Sunday

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