New Zealand Football still a bit player in rugby-mad country

Unlike the top nations at the eight-team tournament in Russia, football is not the most sporting popular code in New Zealand.

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New Zealand's players arrive at Pulkovo International Airport in Saint Petersburg in Russia, on June 9, to take part in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup play

New Zealand's players arrive at Pulkovo International Airport in Saint Petersburg in Russia, on June 9, to take part in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup

(AFP/File)
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For New Zealand's All Whites, the Confederations Cup represents a rare chance for football to emerge from the huge shadow cast by rugby union's All Blacks and test themselves against top opposition.

Unlike the top nations at the eight-team tournament in Russia, football is not the most sporting popular code in New Zealand, where rugby dominates to a degree unmatched anywhere else.

The All Blacks are world champions and represent the country's best-known global brand, with even non-sports fans recognising the team's distinctive black jersey and fearsome pre-match haka war dance.

In contrast, the All Whites are ranked 95 in the world, play in FIFA's weakest confederation Oceania, and struggle to attract quality international teams to remote New Zealand.

It means there's no contest in the quest for public support in the South Pacific nation of 4.5 million people.

"Football's completely eclipsed by rugby in terms of the national consciousness, the media and as part of our culture," historian Grant Morris from Wellington's Victoria University told AFP.

New Zealand's head coach Anthony Hudson watches their international friendly against Northern Ireland, in Belfast, on June 2, 2017 play

New Zealand's head coach Anthony Hudson watches their international friendly against Northern Ireland, in Belfast, on June 2, 2017

(AFP/File)

Consequently, the corporate dollars and government spending that underpin sporting codes through areas such as player development and training facilities flow to rugby.

New Zealand has just one professional football team, Wellington Phoenix, and even its place in Australia's A-League is under threat.

Promising Kiwi players have little choice but to head overseas to further their careers.

Yet Morris points out that football's participation rate is equal to, or even exceeds, that of rugby among the general population.

In other words, New Zealanders like playing football but they don't passionately follow it as spectators, unlike rugby.

The codes were both introduced to New Zealand in the late 19th century, when it was still a British colony.

So why did rugby union take a grip on the national psyche from the outset, while football struggled for recognition?

'Our special thing'

Morris said some theorise that rugby's physical nature made it more appealing in a rough-hewn "settler" culture, where toughness was a prized asset.

New Zealanders also enjoyed early success with the oval ball, while the national football team's results were poor to average.

"We found we were quite good at it, then proved it on the world stage and we've kept doing it," he said.

"It's become our special thing, from early on... the All Blacks are a big part of that. Without the success of the national team I don't think rugby would be nearly as strong in New Zealand."

Morris said there have been two spikes in support for football, both coinciding with the All Whites qualifying for the 1982 and 2010 World Cups.

Current coach Anthony Hudson hopes to revive the feelgood factor by making the 2018 tournament, although New Zealand face a tough play-off against South America's fifth-placed side even if they do top the Oceania qualifiers.

Hudson, a 36-year-old Briton, was scathing about New Zealand's football culture last year, labelling it "soft", "laid back" and lacking urgency.

After much experimentation, Hudson has selected a squad of young players he believes has the commitment to make a mark at international level.

The Confederation Cup offers a chance to test their mettle against the quality opposition so often lacking when New Zealand play their poorly resourced Oceania rivals.

But Morris said football had to accept that rugby was the number one code in New Zealand.

"It'd be very hard to knock rugby off its perch," he said.

"Rugby's probably not what it used to be at grassroots level but it's still got a stronger hold than anything else."

"And the All Blacks have gone from strength to strength, they're probably more prominent now than ever."

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