The beautiful game of politics

Politics and sports are separate things. Yeah, right.

I love football. I'm talking here about proper football as The World recognises it, not the activities the USA or NZ insist on calling "football". They're OK sports too - just not as good as the real thing.

I continue to ignore various long-term injuries and chase the ball around the field as if I was far younger than I actually am. A well-struck pass can stay in my mind for a week. A missed opportunity to score a goal (like the howler I perpetuated on Saturday) can ruin my month.

It's a problem, I know. But it's one I'm happy to live with.

So given my enthusiasm for the beautiful game, it's been pleasing to watch its rise in the New Zealand public's esteem in recent months. "Soccer" (shudder) players have gone from being somewhat oddball outsiders - not quite nerds, but certainly not part of the cool crowd - to the newest, bestest thing in a remarkably short amount of time.

This fact is due to a mix of factors. Part of it is New Zealand Football (the old Soccer New Zealand) getting its financial and administrative affairs in order. Part of it is Terry Serepisos adopting the Wellington Pheonix as his own pet project. And part of it is an adept coach gathering and making good use of a group of reasonably proficient players.

But there's been a fair bit of luck involved as well. The fact that Auckland City, the Wellington Phoenix and the All Whites all turned in international performances that exceeded expectations in the same year is fortuitous. And let's be honest - the result in some of those games didn't really reflect the overall flow of the match.

I know, I know - the harder you work, the luckier you get and it's the end result that matters, not how it was got. But still - the All Whites should have been chasing a two goal deficit to Bahrain after their trip to Manama. And I'll bet Bahrain's striker still has nightmares about how easy his penalty attempt made Mark Paston's job in Wellington.

Finally, football's rise in the public's eyes happens to have taken place at a time when there is widespread disenchantment with Rugby as a game. I don't know the direction of cause and effect at work here, but I certainly think there is a connection between the two.

Maybe it is that the New Zealand public is learning to appreciate the intricacies of footballing tactics, complete with lamentable habits of "simulation". Perhaps a game where 0-0 is an acceptable outcome can be forgiven, so long as there is off-the-field entertainment to participate in. Or perhaps it's just that New Zealand football teams that actually win are a novelty that happen to have arrived at a time when the public is looking for a new sporting thrill.

But the ultimate proof of football's new status? First of all, the government has seen fit to dispense with its mantra of "we need to tighten our belts" and donated $300,000 of (presumably borrowed) money to raise football's profile on the back the All White's World Cup participation.

Now Football New Zealand has reciprocated - I use that term advisedly, without necessarily wishing to imply a direct causal link - by making John Key the patron of the All White's World Cup campaign. This is despite any evidence I can find that he's been particularly interested in the game until recently.

Still, it's a bit of a win-win situation, really. Football New Zealand may be able to leverage this passing fascination with the sport into a longer-term rise in player numbers, which is all to the good.

John Key can hitch his wagon to the [world's largest sporting event - thanks Tim!] and bask in the outpouring of patriotic sentiment as our boys go into battle in a few weeks.

But please - don't anyone ever try to tell me again that politics and sports aren't intermingled.