The return of the (Wellington) Phoenix: 433 days later

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s only professional soccer team, the Wellington Phoenix, played at home Saturday for the first time in 433 days after being separated from their fans by the coronavirus pandemic and the width of the Tasman Sea.

The Phoenix play in Australian football’s A-League and when the pandemic closed the border between Australia and New Zealand in March of last year, the Phoenix based themselves in Australia to play out the 2019-2020 season.

They returned home when that season ended but headed back to Australia, basing themselves in Woollongong south of Sydney in New South Wales state, for the 2020-2021 season.

The Phoenix played the first 22 matches of the season in Australia, away from their fans and families, until the establishment of a “travel bubble” between Australia and New Zealand made it possible finally to return home.

On Saturday the Phoenix played Melbourne-based Western United in front of an expected 20,000 fans at Wellington’s Sky Stadium, set to be the largest crowd in the A-League this season.

Public transport providers laid on extras trains and buses to carry fans to and from the match in downtown Wellington. On a clear, sunny autumn afternoon, the chants and songs of the Phoenix’ fan club the Yellow Fever, rang out around Sky Stadium after 14 months of silence.

“This is going to be a celebration,” the chief executive of Sky Stadium, Shane Harmon, told the New Zealand Herald. “It’s a homecoming and it’s going to be one of those occasions that people remember for years to come.”

The Phoenix have a fiercely loyal fan base which gives them a foothold in the sports market in rugby-mad New Zealand. Their fans, who celebrate goals bare-chested and whirling Phoenix jerseys above their heads, have stayed loyal though the Phoenix have had little success since they joined the A-League in 2007.

Coach Ufuk Talay said his players had to take care Saturday to focus on the match, not the occasion.

“It’s quite an exciting time,” he said. “We haven’t had our own fans supporting us so it’s going to be immense.”

The Phoenix may need the boost that comes from home advantage. They entered Saturday’s match in ninth place among the 12 teams in the A-League, six points outside the top-six playoff zone.

The Phoenix return to Sydney for their next match on Wednesday against Western Sydney Wanderers. But their May 30 match against the Perth Glory at Auckland’s Eden Park is also technically a home match, played in New Zealand rather than Australia.

The Phoenix took the unusual step of banning national flags, other than Australian and New Zealand flags, from Saturday’s match. The move follows an incident in the Phoenix’ match last weekend against Melbourne City in which Wellington’s Israel-born striker Tomer Hemed celebrated a goal by wrapping himself in an Israeli flag carried by supporters in the crowd

Hemed received a yellow card when he celebrated his second goal by donning a kippah, or skullcap, breaching league rules which prohibit head or face coverings. Football Federation Australia has ruled out further sanctions against the Phoenix or Hemed.

The former Brighton and Charlton player who has scored seven goals in 17 appearances for the Phoenix this season supported the flag ban and looked forward to playing in Wellington for the first time.

“From what I understand the club has asked not to bring flags to the stadium so there will not be flags in the game,” he said. “But for me it’s my first game in Wellington and I was waiting for that moment all season, to play in front of our fans.

“To go out and warm up and to see the thousands of fans that we missed all season. In my head I just want to score a goal and celebrate with all of them because they deserve a good game.”

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