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Household Names Sparse In All Whites Group

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Household Names Sparse In All Whites Group

By Alastair Bull of NZPA

Auckland, Dec 5 NZPA - The All Whites will find themselves pitting their skills against players such as Salvador Cabanas and Marek Hamsik rather than Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba in next year's World Cup in South Africa.

At a glitzy ceremony in Cape Town this morning, the All Whites were drawn to play one football superpower -- defending champions Italy -- and two lesser-known countries, Paraguay and Slovakia, in group F.

It was a far cry from 1982, the only previous time they qualified for the World Cup, when they were drawn in a "group of death" with Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland, pitting them against better-known names like Socrates, Zico, Oleg Blokhin and Joe Jordan.

Current Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Fabio Cannavaro have a similar standing in the game to those players, but New Zealand football fans, particularly those whose interest is confined to the English Premier League, may not know too many others.

Portuguese star Ronaldo and Drogba of Cote d'Ivoire were potential opponents for the All Whites, but their countries -- both regarded as strong -- are instead in the same group as Brazil.

Paraguay and Slovakia both have Premiership players, and one in particular is very well-known to All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen.

Striker Roque Santa Cruz played with Nelsen at Blackburn Rovers for two years, scoring 23 goals in two seasons before leaving for Manchester City. Nelsen may find himself marking his former teammate.

Another All Whites player familiar with one of his opponents is teenager Chris Wood, whose Premier League club West Bromwich Albion also has Slovakian left back Marek Cech in their team.

Slovakia's best-known Premier League player is Martin Skrtel, a key player in the defence for Liverpool.

Slovakia are in the World Cup for the first time as an independent nation, having previously qualified when part of Czechoslovakia. They qualified after winning their European qualification group over Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland and are ranked 34 in the world.

The team is led by 22-year-old Hamsik, an exciting midfielder who often makes his mark on attack. He is currently the leading goalscorer for the Italian Serie A club Napoli,

Slovakia's top-scorer in qualifying was Stanislav Sestak, who plays his club football with German Bundesliga team Vfl Bochum.

Nicknamed La Albirroja, Paraguay are led by goalkeeper Justo Villar, the custodian for Real Valladolid in Spain's La Liga. He follows in the tradition of another goalkeeping captain, the outstanding Jose Chilavert.

Their star players include striker Cabanas, who plays in Mexico, Borussia Dortmund's Nelson Valdez and Benfica's free-kick specialist Oscar Cardozo. Also in their squad is Sunderland defender Paulo da Silva.

Ranked 30 in the world, Paraguay have reached the second round of the World Cup three times but have not progressed any further. They qualified third in the South American pool and beat Brazil during qualifying.

All Whites coach Ricki Herbert said he was pleased to avoid some of the potential powerhouse teams but that it was no easy group.

"Italy speak for themselves, but Slovakia and Paraguay are two new sides to us. They are two big obstacles but we go in with some confidence," he said.

Herbert acknowledged the other teams in their group would see the 77th-ranked All Whites as a good draw for them; in Italy's televised coverage of the draw their commentators reportedly laughed openly and celebrated as each of Italy's opponents was read out.

The All Whites pushed Italy before losing 3-4 in their lead-up to last year's Confederations Cup but the four-time winners are ranked fourth in the world.

"This is the World Cup now, so no doubt they'll be a massive task for us but also a fantastic team for us to draw," Herbert said.

Should the All Whites beat the odds and make it to the second round they would play a team from group E, which includes the Netherlands, Japan, Cameroon and Denmark.

All three of the All Whites first round games are at altitude in the northeast of South Africa and Herbert said this meant the All Whites may have to arrive earlier to acclimatise.

Their campaign will begin against Slovakia at Rustenburg on June 16 (NZT). They play Italy at Nelspruit on June 21 (NZT) and their last group match against Paraguay at Polokwane on June 25 (NZT).

Herbert said he hoped a game could be organised for the All Whites in the Fifa international window in early March, and he was keen to play warm-up games against teams from Europe and South America.

Official opportunities for warm-up matches are limited to a one-day window on March 3 and an extended window for the tournament lead-in starting on May 23.

With limited time to act, the talks between the New Zealand delegation in South Africa of New Zealand Football Frank van Hattum, All Whites assistant coach Brian Turner and high performance manager Alex Chiet and other nations were already well underway.

Van Hattum said all teams were going through a similar hectic process of sounding out other teams for friendlies that suited their needs.

"There's a number of options we're looking at in the next few days."

"We've put our names and our calling card out there but there's a lot of calls to be made in the coming days and weeks particularly to teams around Europe, where we may want to have a good look at given the teams we've drawn."

A May camp in Europe remains a likely scenario and van Hattum, who like Turner has been in frequent contact with Herbert post draw, says that although distance made the short March window a tough one to fill for New Zealand, they were turning their attention to South America.

 

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