All Whites coach Darren Bazeley: ‘I’m a big believer that anything’s possible’

“Once you live in New Zealand for a while, it’s very hard to go somewhere else.”

You don’t need to spend long in Darren Bazeley’s company to realise the depth of feeling he has for his adopted country.

The former England Under-21 international defender first made the move from his homeland to join the then-A-League club New Zealand Knights in 2005.

Bazeley would end his playing days in the country and now, almost two decades later, proudly coaches the men’s senior national team and Olympic side.

Main photo: New Zealand’s Darren Bazeley working with his players for the OFC Men’s Olympic qualifiers in August 2023. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

“As a family, we settled here straight away,” says the 51-year-old, with a distinct Kiwi intonation detectable in his accent.

“It’s just such a beautiful country. Where I live now, we’re ten minutes away from about eight different beaches. The weather is great, the people are great. My daughters have grown up here and we all have New Zealand passports. When I look back, it was a great decision to emigrate. My wife has actually never been back to England in 20 years!”

On a professional level, Bazeley’s career has flourished and over the past 15 years he has held several key roles in the New Zealand set-up. He has led the nation’s U-17 and U-20 teams and, in 2023, was promoted to head coach of the All Whites senior side.

It’s a position he combines with coaching the U-23 team which will compete in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Paris 2024. Bazeley believes the synergy between the senior and Olympic squads offers significant benefits.

“The beauty we have is that the two teams are very close,” he says.

“Our Olympic side will be a shadow All Whites team. There is a potential when we get to the Olympics that we’ll have maybe 10 players that have played in the seniors.

“Our competitive advantage is our cohesiveness. We have many players who have played at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups together, so they’ve got a really good connection. I’m lucky I’ve been a part of that as well. I’ve forged great relationships with them.”

Bazeley describes New Zealand’s style of play as “courageous and possession-based”. He is convinced this front-foot mindset — combined with the side’s competitive spirit, togetherness and star quality — can provide a foundation for success at Paris 2024.

“As a small nation like New Zealand, some of our players are a little bit unknown,” he says. “People don’t realise how good some of them are. Marko Stamenic, for example, is a young midfielder playing at Red Star Belgrade who is going to be a very, very good player.

“He’s just one of several talented individuals we have — and we want to play exciting football. We’re also a team that’s got good experience at international level. When we get to the Olympics, we’ll have players who have played some pretty big games in the senior team.”

All Whites player Chris Wood meets fans and supporters after New Zealand’s match against Australia at Auckland’s Eden Park in September 2022. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / Phototek.

‘Woodsy wants to play every game’

All Whites captain and talisman Chris Wood is expected to be among that number. The powerhouse Nottingham Forest striker has expressed his desire to be part of Bazeley’s Olympic side as one of their three permitted overage squad members.

“Woodsy is just so passionate about New Zealand, he wants to play every game,” says Bazeley. “That’s great for us because he’s our captain and our all-time top goalscorer. He’s said in the media he wants to go to the Olympics, which is awesome. He’s an ultimate professional and has a fantastic influence on the young guys in the squad.”

Wood was part of the New Zealand team which reached the quarter-finals at Tokyo 2020. That was their best-ever performance at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament — but Bazeley is setting his sights even higher in France.

“Having grown up watching the Olympics, can you imagine what it would be like to win a medal? That potential is amazing. It’s going to be a really big challenge but, on our day, we’re a very good team. If it all comes together at the right time, I’m a big believer anything can happen.”

The Olympic Games represent another important staging post for a young group of New Zealand players whose ultimate goal is 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification. Bazeley is aiming to become the third coach to lead the nation at the global finals, with the All Whites’ only previous appearances coming in 1982 and 2010.

“Every time we get together, we’re building towards the World Cup,” he says. “We’re building our style of play, building our culture. The thing that excites me most is seeing these players develop. There’s a core group aged between 20-24 who are all sitting on between 15-20 caps. They could stay together for the next 10 years and end up with 100 caps, which would be amazing. We’re a good team now — but I think we’re going to be a great team in a couple of years.”

Football in New Zealand must battle for the sporting headlines with the nation’s iconic All Blacks rugby team, their outstanding cricket side, and several world-class athletes from Olympic disciplines like swimming, rowing and cycling.

Even against that backdrop, however, football has emerged as the No. 1 team participation sport in the country — and Bazeley explained how co-hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year sparked a further surge in popularity.

“We compete with some pretty big hitters, but football is in a good space,” says Bazeley. “The quality of football at the Women’s World Cup was so good that it changed a lot of people’s perceptions about the sport in New Zealand.

“I remember when our Football Ferns beat Norway 1-0 in the opening game … it was just amazing. The whole country got behind them and I think that really set the World Cup rolling. It was such a great tournament and I believe the growth from that will be enormous.”

Bazeley’s men’s Olympic side will aim to similarly capture the nation’s attention at Paris 2024. They will be led by a coach born in bred in England, but whose New Zealand allegiance is absolute.

“There is something special about representing your country at a global event, and I’m a Kiwi now,” he says.

“My family and I are all New Zealand citizens and I couldn’t be prouder to lead this team. There’s no reason why we can’t make a mark on the world stage. I have so much belief in these players.”

Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the assistance of FIFA in providing this interview with Darren Bazeley.

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