Wellington Phoenix’s A-League future has been the topic of heated debate for many years but New Zealand international Shane Smeltz believes the time has come for the discussion to end.
Speaking exclusively to The World Game in Tokyo ahead of the New Zealand Under-23's match with Japan, Smeltz claimed that Phoenix has demonstrated to the Australian public that it belongs in the A-League.
“Of course the Phoenix are vital for the development of New Zealand football but look what they’ve done for the A-League as well,” said Smeltz, who starred for the club from 2007-2009, with 21 goals from 39 A-League matches. “They’ve made the finals the past couple of years now and the days of New Zealand clubs no longer being competitive is finished. They get massive crowds and have some fantastic players.”
There has long been confusion around the status of Wellington in a broader context with the side unable to participate in the Club World Cup due to its presence in the national league of a different confederation, with many claiming that proves it has no place in the A-League.
“Look, I’m naturally a strong supporter of Wellington,” Smeltz said. “They’re a well-run club and I’m sure there will be always be critics for whatever reasons but they’ve earned their place now.
“They bring a lot to the league and there is no way they should leave.”
If Wellington is to leave the A-League Smeltz believes it would be a crushing blow for the future of young New Zealand talent, with Phoenix serving an important development role for the country’s national teams.
There is core group of Wellington players that feature regularly for the national side alongside club and national coach Ricki Herbert, who will be heading to England as a technical adviser to Under-23 coach Neil Emblen.
For several of those players, including Smeltz, the Games is an opportunity to move on from the disappointment of failing to reach next year’s Confederations Cup after the All Whites were bundled out in the semifinals of the OFC Nations Cup by New Caledonia in June.
“Maybe that was the wakeup-call we needed, it was a massive disappointment for us,” Smeltz said. “There were certainly some contributing factors. We played in the heat of the afternoon in an unfamiliar environment but no matter the challenges we shouldn’t be losing to nations like that.”
“I guess it just goes to show that maybe the gap is closing and nations like Tahiti and New Caledonia are improving. They’re bringing in experienced coaches and that’s showing. It’s important that we learn lessons from what went wrong, move on and make sure it never happens again.”
The ‘Olywhites’ are set to take on fellow London-bound qualifier Japan at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
Wellington Phoenix's recruitment under coach Ernie Merrick began with the signing of 22-year-old former Perth Glory goalkeeper Lewis Italiano.