Soccer: All Whites part of football diplomacy

By Michael Brown

Ricki Herbert's side will play their 13th international of the year in Shanghai on November 14. Photo / Getty Images.
Ricki Herbert's side will play their 13th international of the year in Shanghai on November 14. Photo / Getty Images.

The role of politics in sport has always been cloudy, but it played a clear hand in helping secure the All Whites an international against China in Shanghai, not to mention sponsorship from a company accused of spying by the US Government.

Ricki Herbert's side will play their 13th international of the year in Shanghai on November 14 but the result could be overshadowed by discussions behind the scenes by diplomats and politicians.

New Zealand diplomats who helped arrange the match will meet their Chinese counterparts in Shanghai to discuss improving relations and opportunities between the two countries.

Cooperation between sport, politics and business is increasingly visible and it's something being embraced by New Zealand Football. Chief executive Grant McKavanagh even spoke today about "football diplomacy", and former All Whites manager Phil Warbrick is also assisting NZF in a pseudo-diplomatic role.

It's something happening in other sports, too. Last year former New Zealand cricket captain Stephen Fleming accompanied Prime Minister John Key to India and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is an ambassador for Fonterra and visits international markets.

Discussions about a match against China started in February at the All Whites' game against Jamaica when National list MP Jian Yang broached the possibility of New Zealand playing China to recognise 40 years of diplomatic relations between the countries.

They gathered pace when New Zealand diplomats visited China in March.

One of the biggest impediments to progress was money, but various Chinese donors were found and Chinese technology giants Huawei were brought on board as matchday sponsors - the first time NZF have had one.

Huawei's involvement adds another level of intrigue to the game, given accusations of spying were levelled at them by the US Government. The company, which denies the allegations, secured contracts last year with Chorus to supply equipment for the New Zealand Government's rural broadband initiative.

"We are all about football. That's our job," McKavanagh said clearly wanting to avoid discussions about Huawei's suitability as a sponsor. "We are grateful to have them come on board and put the match on.

"The opportunity to open doors up is something we have been talking to the [New Zealand] Government about. It's a real opportunity to get over and for the Government to extend an open hand."

It's also a chance for Herbert to assemble his side ahead of next year's final push for a place at the 2014 World Cup. The All Whites are in the box seat to win the Oceania group and a defeat of New Caledonia next March will see them qualify for a home-and-away intercontinental playoff next November.

McKavanagh said Herbert was committed to picking his strongest side to play China, including captain Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid, who both play in the English Premier League. Whether that happens is still to play out, given the status of the game and the pressure that comes from club managers, but it will also be the last time they will assemble before the match against New Caledonia.

NZF hope to play China more often and next month's game will be the second in two years - the two sides drew 1-1 in Wuhan in 2011 - and 13th since the first in 1981 when the All Whites beat China 2-1 in Singapore to qualify for the 1982 World Cup. China have struggled on the international stage for a number of years but are starting to make progress and are presently ranked seven places ahead of New Zealand at 85.

Discussions are also underway about creating a tri-series with Australia who, according to McKavanagh, are also interested in more regular matches with New Zealand.

- APNZ

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