Will football’s surging popularity boost New Zealand to Qatar 2022?

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For everything that's been made of Qatar being selected as the hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it's impossible to deny that it will still be the biggest entertainment event in the world when it arrives. One of the best aspects of a World Cup is seeing teams come from around the globe to upset the more favoured hierarchy of football nations. Among the potential candidates in this regard may be New Zealand.

The 'All Whites' have to go through the particularly tricky qualification route of continental competition and then a final knockout stage. However, the nation known for its rugby prowess has seen the popularity of football grow exponentially, with it now being the most played sport in the country. Its popularity doesn't finish on the pitches, however, with all interactions with the sport surging.

So, can an ever-growing love of football across the country help New Zealand get to Qatar 2022?

A modern love of the beautiful game

Around the globe, you'll often find that popularity in a sport translates to sales and downloads of sports games across the board. In New Zealand, the football simulation game FIFA 21 has been a dominant force, being the perpetual best-seller at retail and via digital platforms. Of course, there are several other games outside of the annual EA Sports big-hitter, many of which also boast an avid user base in the country.

In Android mobile gaming, the continually growing hit Football PES climbs the top-grossing lists to leapfrog the two mobile FIFA offerings. A love of the sport is also seen in the world of online casino, with the best online casino seeing droves of players jump on Football: Champions Cup. The slot game continues to draw in players for its matchday atmosphere and medium-high volatility.

New Zealanders are playing football indoors digitally and outdoors on the pitches. With increased engagement comes increased support, but do the All Whites have what it takes to qualify?

An improving team with bright prospects

Back in 2016, New Zealand hit its all-time low in the FIFA World Rankings, tumbling to 161st in the table. Despite not qualifying for Russia 2018, due to a tough draw against Peru in the inter-confederation play-offs, the Kiwis have continued to climb, now sitting 118th in the world.

With the OFC Nations Cup scrubbed in 2020, there won't be a proper international tournament for the national team to showcase its improvements until World Cup qualifying gets underway. Just looking at the talents in the side, though, New Zealand would be tipped to progress from OFC as the champions.

There's Chris Wood bullying defences in the Premier League, Ryan Thomas being the midfield engine for PSV Eindhoven, and Winston Reid guarding the box in the MLS to forge the spine of the team. Around them, attack-minded midfielder Sarpreet Singh continues to develop his game while out on-loan from Bayern Munich, and the 20-year-old Liberato Cacace is considered to be among the most promising young left-backs in the world.

The stumbling block, as has been the case for the last two World Cup qualification campaigns, looks to be the inter-confederation play-offs. Over two legs against Mexico for 2014, New Zealand lost 9-3, before ceding a spot in the last World Cup to Peru via a 0-0 and 0-2 scoreline.

In the end, it will likely come down to who the Kiwis draw from the other three last-chance qualifiers in the two-leg knockout stage, but the team is certainly on the rise and should put in a strong showing.

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