New Zealand bid to make their point

By Greg Stutchbury

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - New Zealand have been preaching one simple message about the World Cup -- they are not going just to make up the numbers in Group F against champions Italy, Slovakia and Paraguay.

Securing their first point from a World Cup finals match would be a major boost for the team and the sport in rugby-mad New Zealand, though coach Ricki Herbert has indicated that may not be enough.

"There are a lot of aspirations," Herbert told Reuters. "The team is very much about creating history.

"Our intentions are very clear: to win football matches in group play. That will have some pretty big challenges, but we are a pretty ambitious team and I think we need to be."

When appointed to the job in 2005, Herbert realized that one of the scattered team's major problems had been the lack of time spent together. The majority of the overseas-based players also see little game time, or play in lower leagues.

So Herbert embarked on a long-term plan to build a core squad of players and tried to play them as many times as possible.

The plan seems to have worked.

While four years ago games against fellow Oceania nations could be a struggle, the All Whites gave Italy a fright in a friendly last year before losing 4-3 and they were beaten 2-0 by Mexico in March.

Herbert was ecstatic after the Mexico game, particularly with the way new additions such as defender Tommy Smith had settled into the team.

Smith, along with striker Rory Fallon and midfielder Michael McGlinchey, are beneficiaries of the change in FIFA rules on players being able to switch nationality even though they had played for another country at youth level.

Danish youth international Winston Reid, who like Fallon and McGlinchey was born in New Zealand, was also added to the squad when it was finalized on May 10.

While the World Cup is undoubtedly the short-term focus, the future direction of the sport is the biggest question facing New Zealand Football.

The All Whites had little trouble in winning the four-team final phase in Oceania with a game to spare and qualifying for the two-legged playoff against fifth-placed Asian side Bahrain.

In effect, they had to play just two games, against a match-hardened side, and calls are growing for FIFA to take another look at the qualification process.

The most pragmatic resolution could see the Oceania champions joining the final Asian qualifying phase, though it has also been suggested that New Zealand could follow Australia by leaving Oceania to join Asia permanently.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)