For Kingz and country

by Alistair Bone / 06 September, 2003
Will new signings and a deal with cashed-up English club Chelsea help break local football's losing streak?

Soccer management in New Zealand is a contact sport. "What are your aspirations for this season," someone asks Kingz coach Ken Dugdale, "taking into consideration that all your players are crap, part-timers and the team have little credibility with soccer fans in New Zealand?" Dugdale is always polite to the contributors on the website question board. "Hello, thanks for your interest in the Kingz and contributing to the site," he types back. Then the explanations - "Human err ... give 100% ... have to do the best we can ... wait and see ... be realistic."

The song remains the same year after year at the Kingz - perennial losers and penniless bystanders as money floods the game and football takes over the world. Except maybe for this year, which could - could - be the best that they've ever had.

First of all, the tune may change. It will be a surprise if the Ericsson Stadium management can resist playing Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", ("I come from the land of the ice and snow ...") the first time Norwegian Aleksander Midtsian runs on for the Kingz. The 20-year-old is a left-footed winger, has turned out five times for his country's under-21 side, and netted a goal against Sweden. Frustrated with lack of game time in three years with top-division title contender Lyn, he moved to the East Oslo squad, spending three months injured and unpaid. And dropping out of contention for the U21s.

Scenario one is that Midtsian is that rarest of animals, a diamond in the rough, willing to spend a season in Oceania. Unquestionably, his career is on the slide; along with most of the other Kingz players, he burns to play in Europe and sees this season as a way of producing a video that he can hawk around the northern traps. Recruited from the fertile Norwegian proving grounds by a stellar combination of Dugdale's unlikely Arctic Circle connections, freakish good timing and powers of persuasion, he sets the team alight. He is fiercely focused on the Kingz and their success via him, leaving at the end of an amazing season for a big-money Euro club and taking with him a host of fans who will always claim him as an honorary Kiwi.

Scenario two is that his knee injury returns, or he is miserable so far from Norway and his girlfriend, or he is all that Dugdale could get, and Lyn was right to leave him out because he isn't that hot.

Midtsian, Dugdale, Kingz and the long-suffering New Zealand soccer public will be praying for the first option. The earliest signs are hopeful. Midtsian juggles like a Brazilian and came off the plane after 30 hours in transit and went to training (jet lag did him in, but score one for commitment).

The most remarkable thing is that, for the first time ever, this season the Kingz are holding more than the one card. On July 31, they announced a tie-up with English Premier League team Chelsea. The London team has been the news of the close-season. Chelsea's parent company was bought by 36-year-old Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who will probably spend more than $270 million signing big-time talent for a determined domestic and European title tilt. Chelsea is now inevitably denoted as Chel$ki in the British fun press.

Abramovich has not bought the Kingz, although their estimated $1.4 million price is probably what he has in his spare trousers. Instead, Chelsea will get entrée to the Australasian game, which has produced its share of superstars. Kingz players who shine, and hold a European passport, will get a trip to London for assessment. The Kingz also get to pick a couple of players from Chelsea reserves and possibly a coach or two down the line. Chelsea will pay their wages while they get experience in a first team.

Dugdale wants an organisational defender and a striker. He doesn't want kids. "We don't want an 18-year-old who is going to take the place of a New Zealand 18-year-old, we want someone who is going to strengthen the team. We want someone who is almost ready to go into their first team pool."

So, inches from playing in front of 40,000 plus at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, live to millions on TV, an ambitious young man will pack his bags and head to Ericsson for a stint in front of 4000 max and a delayed spot on the Obscure Channel? "The players are contracted to Chelsea Football Club," says Dugdale, "and if the Chelsea club say come down here, they will go where told."

Dugdale has no one in mind he will admit to, but he immediately recognises the name of Winston Bogarde. "He is a classic example. It would be nice to get someone of his calibre. They are signing so many players there are going to be a lot of players sitting on the bench."

Bogarde is a 32-year-old Dutch international defender signed by Chelsea in August 2000. Overlooked even pre-Abramovich and injured for a long spell, he has not been allocated a jersey number this season. He is paid more than $108,000 a week (maybe two Kingz players make more than $40,000 a year), he won't leave and he won't take a pay cut. Last reports have him coaching children in a park.

Even if Bogarde won't play it again, his unemployment serves notice that the Chelsea pool is deep and wide enough to spare people who will shine like diamonds in Australasia. Dugdale can't lose. Probably. The problem is that this is not the first European foray into local football. And it would not be the first to end badly.

In 2000, the situation with Glasgow Rangers and Australian club Northern Spirit was a little different. Rangers were never as rich as Chelsea, and they actually bought a controlling interest in Spirit. But big things were expected along the Chelsea/Kingz line. However, fans were soon rumbling about Spirit becoming a glorified youth academy for Rangers. And when Rangers' director of football Dick Advocaat paid a visit, the proverbial really hit the fan. Advocaat reportedly had conniptions at the state of the club and the state of Australian football generally. The Scottish side slashed costs and cut jobs. A disheartened Spirit was eventually sold on in 2002.

Kingz director Chris Turner says the deal with Chelsea has taken over two years to get in place. Sky TV NZ owns 10 percent of the Kingz, so it was looking for a British club with BSkyB shareholding to hook up with and share TV access. Chelsea was keen before jets flew into buildings in the US and all new ventures went on hold. Earlier this year, Turner resuscitated the idea. Luck seems to be with them; Abramovich bought Chelsea, out of the blue, a week after the club signed the deal with the Kingz.

Turner says that the difference between Chelsea/Kingz and Rangers/Spirit is that Spirit was bought out and totally lost its way, its identity subsumed in Rangers. He doesn't discount the idea of a buy-in down the track, but he is not aware of any moves in that direction. He does say that Kingz are holding talks with Chelsea shirt sponsor Emirates, which (more dumb luck) recently started flying to New Zealand.

Likewise, Turner is upbeat about the investment of Brian Katzen in the club. The British resident South African has taken a 10 percent slice of the Kingz. Katzen, who is on the board of a company that claims to specialise in the acquisition of other companies in financial distress, is part of a group that bought in-trouble third-division Swansea (and its $4.6 million debt) for around $135,000. Forthwith letting the manager and his assistant go and cutting $1.3 million in costs in eight weeks. Turner is off to the UK soon and will be looking to formalise the Swansea connection.

Dugdale is getting ambitious, and believes the Australasian league is of equivalent quality to the lower half of the First Division, the second tier in English football. But with the national team crashing badly in the Confederations Cup earlier this year, the Kingz must carry the cudgel of New Zealand soccer for the foreseeable future. Their record is bad; twice they finished eighth out of 16, dead last in the 01/02 season and 11th out of 13 last year. Their fifth year must see them in the top six. The big dream is that the Kingz become the wide end of a funnel that sucks up every class player in Australasia and ends in London and the Premier League. With Abramovich's help and a bit more of that luck, it might come true.

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