Saturday, March 13, 2010

Could the crowd (or the lack thereof) be the deciding factor?

It can hardly have escaped anyone’s attention that the Wellington Phoenix play Sydney FC tonight for a place in the final of the A-League football competition. But in all the welter of words devoted to this match, I don’t think I’ve seen or heard any mention of what could surely be the deciding factor.

Phoenix have built a reputation for being virtually unbeatable at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, where their home fans provide deafening support. Last week’s match against the Newcastle Jets attracted a roaring crowd of more than 33,000 – a prodigious number in a country where football (or soccer, if you prefer) has traditionally been something of a Cinderella code.

That level of highly demonstrative support not only invigorates the Phoenix but must also have an intimidating effect on their opponents. It helped the All Whites, too, when they scraped into the World Cup at Westpac Stadium last November by beating Bahrain. Coach Ricki Herbert (who also coaches the Phoenix) conceded after that game – which the All Whites won 1-0 – that it was the vocal backing of the home crowd that got his team “over the line”.

My question is this: how will the Phoenix perform in Sydney tonight without the rowdy, rapturous support they have become accustomed to on their home turf? It must make a difference. They will be playing on enemy territory, in front of a smaller crowd, against a formidable side that has beaten the Phoenix three times this season and has the home ground advantage. There will of course be Phoenix supporters in the crowd, but not nearly enough to replicate the intense atmosphere of the Westpac Stadium.

It would be great to see the Phoenix win against the odds, but I have a sneaky feeling that our sports journalists are so elated at a New Zealand side getting into the preliminary final that they don’t want their enjoyment of the moment ruined by a reality check.

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