Kiwis qualify with not a sheep joke in sight

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When the various World Team of the Year awards go out, don’t expect New Zealand to top too many lists.

The Kiwi side may have qualified for their first World Cup finals since 1982, but their status as a representative of Oceania has put plenty of noses out of joint.

That’s because New Zealand knocked out an Asian nation in the form of Bahrain, using a squad comprised mainly of players from A-League outfit Wellington Phoenix.

Since the A-League is an Asian competition, Australia has essentially provided its Antipodean cousins with the perfect platform to launch an assault on the World Cup.

That won’t go down well with the head honchos at the Asian Football Confederation, who saw New Zealand knock the last remaining west Asian side out of the competition.

The AFC has already proposed booting Wellington out of the A-League, with powerful Qatari-born supremo Mohammed Bin Hammam repeatedly expressing his desire to see the club evicted from the league.

However, FIFA have responded to the impasse with predictable indifference, as the globetrotting Sepp Blatter makes it clear that a trip to the Kiwi capital is not high on the agenda.

For now, New Zealand march on to the finals in South Africa with a squad consisting largely of A-League players, including play-off hero Mark Paston and star striker Shane Smeltz.

Paston saved a penalty in New Zealand’s 1-0 win over Bahrain in Wellington, where 36,000 fans packed into Westpac Stadium to see the hosts prevail following a scoreless first leg.

The Phoenix goalkeeper was only playing due to a suspension to Melbourne Victory custodian Glen Moss, and Paston made the most of his start – although it was Plymouth Argyle striker Rory Fallon who cannoned home the header that sent New Zealand through.

Coach Ricki Herbert went to the World Cup as a player in 1982, and he was the focus of emotional scenes at the final whistle, having guided the Kiwi side to just their second finals appearance.

Much has been made of the fact that New Zealand did not beat a single country with a population exceeding one million en route to the finals.

Nevertheless, the All Whites simply did what was required and beat every team that was put before them.

They’ll go into the finals with the mantle of underdogs and a game plan based heavily on “hitting set pieces into areas” – as midfielder Leo Bertos described the build-up to the winning goal against Bahrain.

What England coach Fabio Capello makes of a potential Commonwealth showdown at the World Cup is anyone’s guess, with New Zealand joining Australia and hosts South Africa at the table of football’s elite.

For their part, the Kiwis are just happy to be there – even if the 5-0 mauling they suffered at the hands of Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup suggests that they are merely making up the numbers.

From an Australian point of view, reaction has been fairly positive to the success of our cousins across the ditch, with talk of a potential friendly on the cards.

These days Australia is a commited member of the AFC, but there are plenty of well wishers who remember the not-so-distant past when the Kiwis were our fiercest international rivals.

The dirt from Down Under wishes New Zealand well, and promises to lay off the sheep jokes for the foreseeable future.

That is, of course, unless the two sides meet in South Africa – in which case it’ll be on for young and old.

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