Soccer: Big lessons from Horror in Honiara

By Michael Brown of APNZ in Honiara

Coach Ricki Herbert is likely to make a raft of changes for the All Whites' final game. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Coach Ricki Herbert is likely to make a raft of changes for the All Whites' final game. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Coach Ricki Herbert is likely to make a raft of changes for the All Whites' final game at the Oceania Nations Cup against the Solomon Islands today, raising the previously unthinkable possibility they could finish fourth at the tournament.

Herbert isn't fussed, despite the further dent it would do to their reputation in New Zealand and the region. The damage, in his eyes, has already been done.

"Whatever happens tomorrow, happens," he said yesterday. "Whether you are third or fourth now is irrelevant. The hurt of not winning [the tournament] isn't going to go away."

Quite simply, they weren't good enough to win. They struggled through the group stages and their luck ran out against New Caledonia in Friday's semifinal when they went down 2-0.

The result is the worst since the disastrous campaign at the 2004 Oceania Nations Cup, something that cost Mick Waitt his job as coach and ultimately elevated Herbert into the role, and it was also the first time New Zealand have been beaten by New Caledonia since 1976.

There were many reasons why it went wrong, from the fact many in the squad had played little football heading into the tournament to failing to acclimatise to the difficult conditions and the mental and physical fatigue of playing four games in seven days.

Ultimately, however, it was what they did, or didn't do, on the pitch that hurt them the most.

"We lacked that yard of intensity around the pitch," Herbert said, "that desperation. It was tough and demanding and hot but we are talking about a one-off, 90-minute fixture. It didn't matter who you were, you are going to have to perform really well.

"I still feel a good performance against a team like New Caledonia, you are probably going to win 3-0. But commitment, work rate, dedication, heart on the sleeve... the other teams we played against rolled that out in abundance. They have been incredibly committed to making this tournament very difficult for us, just like we did against Italy and Paraguay and Slovakia and Serbia.

"We can't continually be the side that steps up against high-level teams and then the side that is average against teams we need to beat."

Too often they looked bereft of ideas or played too predictably, lacked individuals who could take the game by the scruff of the neck and lacked the pace to deal with the island teams.

They didn't boss any of the four games they played in and didn't play with the sort of authority and surety a team who were undefeated at the World Cup should. It is a young squad but seven who started the first game against Fiji were regular starters in South Africa.

The All Whites still have a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and will be joined by Tahiti, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands in the next phase of qualifying - they play each other home and away.

The All Whites will still be favourites to progress because island teams have historically struggled when playing in New Zealand and Herbert should be able to call on the likes of Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid.

But island teams don't fear the All Whites any more. They see they can not only be outplayed but also beaten.

"[This tournament] showed it's possible to beat New Zealand now," Solomons technical advisor Laurent Papillon said. "It's difficult now for Ricki and the New Zealand players but it's better for the competition, for Oceania, to have four teams who can play at the same level. New Zealand have to improve, too. You learn better when you lose."

There are plenty of lessons to learn from the Horror of Honiara. Perhaps one of the biggest is the realisation they can't be dictated to by clubs who don't want to release players to the New Zealand side and must also demand commitment from those individuals to play. It's been talked about before but Herbert is more determined this time.

He held a meeting with the squad yesterday spelling out what he expected of them and is bound to get in touch with Nelsen, Reid and others who were absent.

"The big thing now is how we prepare for the World Cup fixtures," Herbert said. "It's going to clash with the Premier League, the American league. If I'm honest, I don't give a toss. Players need to be available. That's not a Ricki Herbert policy, it needs to be a New Zealand Football policy. I have a massive job here and the players have to play their part.

"It doesn't really matter if you are earning $1 or $2, everybody still has to make that commitment to the national team and if that effects their position at their club, so be it. International football is in windows for certain reasons and we need to make sure we are ready for that. We have to have our best players."

There have been the inevitable calls for Herbert's head but he has received the backing of NZF and remains committed to the job. It would be unwise to make a change now, especially with the next phase of qualifiers due to start in September, but he needs to be successful in the next phase.

"I'm contracted through to the end of the 2014 World Cup," Herbert said. "That's what my heart is set on, that's what I am there to do.

"In some respects, this probably hasn't been a bad learning curve for us. Can they bring in better players and play any better? Probably not. Can we? I think there's a lot of room for improvement.

"It just hurts, big time, but it won't do me any harm, either."

- APNZ

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