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THE CONTINUOUS RISE OF TEAM WELLINGTON, THE NEW FORCE IN OCEANIC FOOTBALL

Ahead of their FIFA Club World Cup debut, we look at the sustained rise of Team Wellington as they aim to take the reigns from Auckland City FC and become the new face of Oceanic football.

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It’s a time for dynasties all over the world, a time for consolidation that is most frequently highlighted amongst the best in European football. Amongst the top five leagues in Europe, Paris Saint-Germain are dominating Ligue 1, Juventus are on course for an eighth-successive Serie A title, Atlético Madrid only briefly halted Barcelona and Real Madrid’s dominance in LaLiga, while Los Blancos have amazingly managed win three successive Champions League honours on the bounce. 

Dynasties work for several reasons, largely due to credits of the dynasty-makers and weaknesses of opponents in this scenario. Real Madrid’s recent dominance on the European scene has been rare – no team had one the reformed Champions League in successive seasons before them – and that is the same across all the other confederations. However, that cannot be said about the OFC, where Auckland City FC have run the show in the Oceania region. For that reason, they have obtained a frequent ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup.

Football in New Zealand lives in a paradox. The national team isn’t consistent when it comes to appearances in World Cup finals tournaments, with their last participation coming in 2010. However, the domestic scene looks strong. Ever since Australia departed for the AFC, only one club that doesn’t hail from New Zealand has lifted the OFC Champions League. Auckland City have been the force, but lately, they’ve been challenged by a team that isn’t too far away from them. They are Team Wellington, and they have a brief, but enchanting background.

GROWING FAST

In New Zealand, Auckland is the main port for football, while there is no major influence from Wellington. In fact, Wellington is home to the only club from New Zealand that features in Australia’s A-League – the Wellington Phoenix – who have been playing in Australia’s top flight since 2007. The first New Zealandic club to feature in the A-League, the New Zealand Knights, were based in Auckland, but that project didn’t work out, so Football Federation Australia looked to Wellington.

2004 was the birth year of the New Zealand Football Championship, the local league which replaced the New Zealand Soccer League. Despite being one of the founding members of the division, Team Wellington wasn’t immediately successful. Created in 2004 by the merger of several clubs from the Wellington area, they had struggles initially.

It took four years for the team to find their feet, and they made it all the way to the Championship final in 2008, losing 2-0 to Waikatere United, who were one of the strongest teams in the country. All this time, Auckland City were dominant on the local and continental scene, while Wellington were just beginning to make waves. This major change was due to the arrival of Stu Jacobs the head coach of the team between 2007 and 2011 and was also the assistant to Ricki Herbert – the head coach of the New Zealand national team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Then, another huge change with the arrival of Matt Calcott, Jacobs’ successor. With these transitions, Wellington saw their first finals and then a national title in 2016, when the club overcame Auckland City in the final. This was a great success for the club, but they weren’t looking to rest on their laurels and wanted continental success and a subsequent ticket to the Club World Cup – the same success Auckland City were enjoying. However, they weren’t helped by the unexpected departure of Calcott.

At this stage, the name José Manuel Figueira becomes prominent for Wellington. A relatively unknown quantity at the time, Figueira has been an emerging name in the coaching world on the Eastern hemisphere. Figueira got into coaching while still playing in England. He was still only 18 at the time of entering the coaching world, having being advised to hang up his boots early. Soon in his career, he made the unconventional move of going as far wide as New Zealand, but he claims he has no regrets over the choice.

I’ve ended up in New Zealand through a good friend of mine, who’s over coaching as well, and the opportunity came about to take the first steps to be a full-time football coach. Those opportunities were not that many between Europe and England, where I was at that time…and yeah, looking back 13-14 years later, it was a great decision for me. I expected a country eager to grow the game and obviously upskill coaches helping develop his players…it was a really exciting time for me”.

While in the Oceanic region, Figueira worked in Auckland with Central United FC, a club in the second division in New Zealand, where he was a coach first and later, the Director of Football. After several years of work with the club, he was picked as the successor to Calcott over at Wellington. This was a bold move by Team Welly, but little did they know that it would work out so well for them.

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THE CONTINENTAL DREAM

Team Wellington was looking to expand their rise in New Zealand, and they did so successfully. By the time Figueira took the reigns, they concluded the two previous seasons as runners-up in the regular season, and on both occasions, were on the verge of being champions. However, in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, they qualified for the play-offs and won them. This led to their continued chase of the OFC Champions League, the one trophy missing from their cabinet.

Their chase has been on from the off. In four participations, Team Wellington has always made it to the final, losing to Auckland City on all occasions, sometimes even embarrassingly. Despite showing the spark domestically, they were always lacking that final bit on the continental scene, but Figueira was here to fix it. The club’s captain, Justin Gulley, a former A-League player with Wellington Phoenix, has highlighted those changes under their coach.

It’s a just big step up, really. To play in the A-League, you have to be at the top of your game really, every single day. You have to be working your socks off. Not saying you don’t have to at Team Wellington, but you have really to work hard. The pace and the intensity… is a lot higher. You get used to when you are training every day. The club has covered a lot of ground: it can only get better and better, with the club becoming bigger and stronger.”

With his footballing principles inspired by Marcelo Bielsa, Figueira has transformed the club and led them to the promised land. They had to forget their previous thumpings by Auckland City and move on from there. In the 2018 season, it was the first time in a very long time that two clubs from New Zealand didn’t meet in the OFC Champions League final, as Auckland City and Team Wellington met in a two-legged semi-final, meaning that there wouldn’t be an all-New Zealand clash in the final.

Against all expectations, Figueira’s team did the job, booking a ticket in the final against Fiji’s Lautoka after overcoming Auckland City on the away goals rule. The clash with their local rivals in the semi-final finished 2-2, however, this too came with its drama. Wellington raced to a two-goal lead, and were nearly pegged back and threw it all away. Luckily for them, they managed to pull through and book their ticket for the final where they were overwhelming favourites.

Their favourites tag was justified and their dominance was displayed in the final. In the first leg, they steamrolled Lautoka, winning 6-0 in New Zealand and in the second leg, a clash which was a mere formality, they won 4-3. Figueira and Team Welly’s mission was accomplished: they would win the OFC Champions League for the first time and also book get a place in the FIFA Club World Cup which is to take place in the United Arab Emirates. Figueira made his mission and the importance of this result clear soon after the final.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the club. First and foremost, we’re really on it to represent our region and it’ll be a really exciting time for us heading up to such a major event – said the 36 years-old English manager –. (This is going to be) an opportunity for the club, you know, to get more exposure outside of New Zealand. We have quite a good reputation and following both in New Zealand and in Oceania, but we’re trying to grow our name and our brand worldwide”.

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Where does Team Welly go from here? Their first objective will be to cement their status on the top of their footballing pyramid domestically and in the Oceanic region. Winning the OFC Champions League again will be their primary task, while a good performance at the 2018 Club World Cup – where they begin at the earliest stage – can only enhance their reputation.

There is also a lot of hope on Team Wellington by the national team. Having missed out on qualification for the 2014 and 2018 editions of the World Cup, many hope that Team Wellington’s rise and competition with Auckland can boost football in the country and help their qualification bid for the 2022 World Cup. The captain, Matt Gulley believes his club are aiding the country’s footballing aspirations.

New Zealand players securing professional contracts in Europe in some of the top leagues is the key: the more that happens, the better for our local upcoming players. If the youngsters are not breaking into that club, the more opportunities they have to go and have a season in high-quality environments, it’s going to be really beneficial for the national squads”.

The Club World Cup is often criticized for being a distraction to the football calendar, but while European clubs see this as a mere formality they have to go through, clubs like Team Wellington and others in regions where football is growing, this is a marker of progress. These clubs are more than happy to take part as they can test themselves against the best side in each confederation and that is why it is so highly regarded.

The experience in the UAE  during the Club World Cup could possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Team Welly and they are keen to make the most of it. They’ve got several stories to support their unstoppable rise, and that of Marco Barcia, their Argentinean midfielder, is one of them. A key player for them, Barcia started his career at home, but soon moved to New Zealand and just like his coach, he hasn’t looked back. During the Club World Cup, there is a chance he could come up against one of his own following River Plate’s qualification, and he is up for the task.

I was playing in Argentina, in third division, and I had the chance (in February 2014) of coming to New Zealand. At the beginning it was a little bit weird to think to play here, but I spoke to my family and they were happy for me…so I just made this decision of coming here and yeah, it was simply great”. [On the possibility of facing River Plate] It’d be great. I’ve played for several teams in Argentina and for us it’s just football. I look forward to.”

In an era of strong dynasties in several nations, Team Wellington are breaking them in New Zealand and making waves in the region. As confirmed by their own words, the players and coaches are looking forward to the Club World Cup and the future, for it may just be a fruitful one.

BY GABRIELE ANELLO