Friday, July 6, 2007

The Rise of the Wellington Phoenix

While the relocation of a club franchise hundreds of miles from one city to another is virtually unheard of in English football, such rebranding exercises are commonplace in Australia.

All the football codes do it, sometimes even blending two established teams into one and moving the entire operation to a new home.

The NSL, Australia's now-defunct national soccer league, was no stranger to clubs coming and going throughout its turbulent 28-year history, and now the same is happening again to its successor the A-League.

The current set-up, although certainly more surefooted, has been unable to resist churning one of its eight foundation teams despite the league being just two years old.

Gone are the instantly forgettable New Zealand Knights, the franchise delivered kicking and screaming from the embattled Auckland Kingz which faired little better during the death throws of the NSL.

In its place have come Wellington Phoenix, a brand new club born partly out of Football Federation Australia's desire to retain a New Zealand influence in the fledgling league, but mainly by owner Terry Serepisos' million-dollar investment.

Serepisos, a wealthy local property developer of Greek heritage, bailed out the Kiwis with, by his own admission, a seven-figure donation from the heart rather than the head.

His eleventh-hour rescue mission helped stave off the advances of rival bids from North Queensland and the Gold Coast among others and he handpicked the new team's moniker as an indication of the club's rise from the ashes.

The smouldering remnants of the Knights have, however, offered little in the way of reusable energy - with the exception of coach Ricki Herbert who shared the duties of managing the A-Leaguers with the New Zealand national team job towards the end of the season.

Herbert's recruitment was essential, not only in the eyes of the FFA, who for two long years pushed the Knights towards a greater Kiwi influence, but also for Serepisos himself.

Fundamentally he believes that dramatic changes in New Zealand's sole league representative must be more far-reaching than simply shifting the franchise the 400 miles from one end of the country's North Island to the other.

Herbert has responded by signing up nine New Zealanders to date, his main scoop convincing newly-installed vice-captain Tim Brown to break his contract with Newcastle Jets as well as recruiting all-time leading national team goalscorer Vaughan Coveny, goalkeeper Mark Paston and Perth schemer Jeremy Christie.

Defender Tony Lochhead has also returned from Major League Soccer in the US while 'keeper Glen Moss and striker Shane Smeltz have relocated from Europe.

However, in stark contrast to the former regime which controversially recruited English has-beens such as Scot Gemmill and Neil Emblen, Herbert has plumped for a quartet of Brazilians as the club's designated overseas quota.

As Herbert explains, “I looked at the league holistically - where it’s going to, where it’s driving to - and the impact and the difference that players from different cultures can bring.

“As this competition goes along it’ll be interesting to see the dynamics that other A-League clubs use from a foreign quota perspective and a very high percentage of players are coming out of South America, whether they’re from Brazil, Argentina, Chile or Costa Rica.

“I think they’re players that offer a lot of skill and flair and enjoy expressing themselves on the field. If you get the balance right then it’s quite a dynamic ingredient to have.”

It will certainly be a tricky balancing act.

The four arrivals are hardly household names even though 29-year-old central defender Cleberson has previously played for PSV in Holland as well as Sao Paulo and Botafogo in the Brazilian championship.

Free-kick specialist Daniel reportedly turned down a late offer from Dutch club Feyenoord to join the Phoenix with No.10 Felipe de Souza Campos and George, a nippy striker, completing the foursome.

The new-look Samba Kiwis will get their first chance to impress when Wellington play their maiden competitive match next weekend, a pre-season clash against the Central Coast Mariners.

A New Zealand side has never won the Australia championship in any guise, and even though that won't change this season at least Herbert and co. are finally implementing a popular strategy.

That, in the eyes of the disillusioned local support, is a decent starting point.

Copyright © Marc Fox and

Australian Soccer News

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