Opinion - Why Navy Blues Cup run was vital

Words: Agustin Fernandez

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Picture: Phototek

BACKGROUND - Agustin Fernandez is a 29-year-old sports journalist from Santa Rosa, La Pampa, Argentina residing in Auckland, New Zealand. A self-confessed Boca Juniors supporter, Fernandez worked in radio for four years following Boca Juniors where he also worked with the club's media team.

A contributor to two most of the most popular football shows in Argentina - ‘Libero’ and ‘Paso a Paso’ - both from ‘Tyc Sports’, Argentina's premier sports channel, he later worked with Gatorade Argentina where he would work with 'Los Pumas' and Argentinian Rugby.

In this opinion piece, he discusses his take on Auckland City FC, football in New Zealand and his perspectives as an outsider with a deep interest in the game in this country.

OPINION - As an Argentine journalist who has experienced all of Auckland City FC's recent achievements with great curiosity and enthusiasm, specifically the club's performances at the FIFA Club World Cup, writing this article brings me a lot of pleasure.

I arrived in New Zealand three years ago after leaving behind my career with Gatorade, with my English almost non-existent and took up playing football socially in Auckland. To pay the bills I've worked as a carpenter and following Auckland City FC as an admirer, my love and passion for local football has been reignited.

They say when you are close to something, it is easy to take it for granted and I suppose as an outsider that distance and perspective allows to take a view of the club that remains stark and explicit, as opposed to local fans who are perhaps tired of the club's domination of the code in men's football.

I don't want to bore you with history, but the third place finish of Auckland City FC at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in 2014 remains one of the great romances of world football, at least to any outsider looking in.

It was an important achievement because it proved to the world that the club itself and New Zealand possessed talent that could captivate the rest of the football world in a way that is more than rare.

As a club, Auckland City FC appears to emulate the best features of clubs from around the world from its leadership, its volunteers, its coaching staff and players, and a dedication to communications that ensures fans not only from New Zealand keep up to date with what happens at Kiwitea Street, but also its many niche fan groups in countries such as Japan, Argentina, Brazil and beyond.

I moved to New Zealand only recently but my first brush with Auckland City FC was nearly seven years ago when the 'Navy Blues' made their big impact at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco. The tie-in was obvious - the champions of Oceania had come through a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Moghreb Tetouan and then beaten the champions of Africa, ES Setif, 1-0, to secure a semi-final with South America's champions, Argentina's San Lorenzo.

Everyone in Argentine football believed that as romantic as Auckland City FC's run to the last four had been, it would all end in a more than comfortable victory for San Lorenzo.

We believed it would be an easy game.

Only the year before, New Zealand's All Whites had been taken apart by Mexico 9-3 on aggregate in the home-and-away Intercontinental Playoff for qualification for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, so it was difficult to see anything other than a San Lorenzo victory with so much on the line - a final showdown with Real Madrid.

What happened next nearly caused a nationwide outbreak of heart attacks in Argentina as Auckland City FC first fell behind when Pablo Barrientos scored bang on halftime to ease the tension after an unexpetedly difficult first half.

When Angel Berlanga equalised midway through the second half, nerves were shredded in Argentina, as the thought of the smallest club in the competition looked on the verge of a seemingly impossible upset.

The New Zealand side had all the momentum.

Emiliano Tade then missed a golden chance to kill off San Lorenzo and when the game went to extra time, Mauro Matos grabbed a cruel but welcome winner as the New Zealand and Oceania champions finally wilted under pressure.

Their win over Cruz Azul via another penalty shoot-out was more than deserved and it was the best story of the FIFA Club World Cup as Real Madrid defeated San Lorenzo in the final.

The effect of Auckland City FC's achievements on the Argentine media and our football fans was well underway with Tade, the club's top goal scorer, an obvious talking point, not only for his efforts in the tournament but because he is the Argentine player with the most appearances in the competition.

I like comparing Auckland City FC with Argentina's 'Los Pumas' rugby team. I know they are two totally different sports, but their stories are aligned in many ways. Rugby in Argentina has historically been amateur. However, despite not having many professional players, Argentinian Rugby began to sow good results because of the passion of the players, coaches and administrators.

But passion has a limit.

Good results can be achieved with a good generation, but if you don't make the decision to grow in professional ways and to invest in the sport, you can never break that historical trend.

In recent years, 'Los Pumas' have made every effort to professionalise themselves and in turn, they managed to enter what was previously Rugby Union's closed shop of the Tri-Nations. After a lot of hard work today it can be said that 'Los Pumas' can play as the equals of any top team in modern rugby today.

We can say the same about Auckland City FC. They have shown that New Zealand football has talent and they can compete as equals with highly professional teams, but of course, it will be more difficult to maintain over time if the other leagues in the world advance and in New Zealand there is no investment in football.

I think it is a good time for the game in New Zealand to work together to take club football to another level. Many people will think that it is crazy because football is not one of the most popular sports in New Zealand, but rugby was not popular in Argentina either and 'Los Pumas' defeated the All Blacks last year - there is precedence, passion and possibility.

It is easy for me, as an Argentine, to look at football in New Zealand with a mix of frustration, fascination and disbelief - the answers are right before your eyes to growing the game.


Into the future

Looming on the horizon for Australia and New Zealand is the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023 when the trans-Tasman neighbours will play host to one of FIFA's fastest growing tournament frameworks.

It is not the first time New Zealand has hosted a major FIFA event, with the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup in 1999, FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2008 and the FIFA U-20 Men's World Cup in 2015 already under the belt.

New Zealand is a small nation, capable of producing world beaters and we even saw the All Whites eliminate the reigning world champions from the FIFA World Cup in South Africa nearly 11 years ago and depart the competition undefeated, a run that included a draw with Paraguay, a South American team at its height during that era.

With such potential, and many advantages the rest of the world does not enjoy, it would be a dream for me to see New Zealand establish a professional league for men and women, to help build the Football Ferns and All Whites, so that achievements like those of Auckland City FC at the FIFA Club World Cup can be repeated by them and others from these beautiful islands in the future.

Ends

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