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Born-again All White grabs his chance

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What the 21-year-old Wellingtonian had not envisaged was doing so for the All Whites – and certainly not as soon as Monday's Asia-Oceania Challenge Cup match against Iran in Tehran.

Bertos represented New Zealand at schoolboy level during his Wellington College days but the prospect of graduating to the All Whites never really appealed.

The pacy wing figured he had a better chance of playing at a World Cup with Greece, the birthplace of his father George, while his Romanian grandparents provided a backup avenue to soccer's holy grail.

Bertos was so confident of his international future he even turned down the chance to play for Ken Dugdale's All Whites in the 2001 Oceania World Cup qualifying tournament in Auckland.

But the former Wellington Olympic striker has quickly learned beggars cannot be choosers in the cut-throat world of professional football.

Bertos wondered if he had a future in the game when he lost his job at Barnsley in May after three topsy-turvy seasons at the now English second division club.

Fortunately, Rochdale came to his rescue and Bertos has repaid the third division club with three goals this season, including a late second half strike that lifted them to a 2-0 win over Scunthorpe last weekend.

In between, Bertos was given a second chance by the Kiwi selectors when he played for the New Zealand under-22 development team in Kobe, Japan. Now an injury to Oldham Athletic striker Chris Killen has given Bertos a chance in an experimental All Whites lineup.

A sellout crowd of 100,000-plus is expected at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, one of the most intimidating destinations in world soccer.

But far from being fazed by the occasion, Bertos is itching to experience the hostile cauldron.

"It will be unbelievable. . . this is what you play the game for," he said.

"Rochdale average about 3000 a game and that's a really good buzz so it's going to be an awesome atmosphere here (Tehran). It gets to the stage where you can't here your team-mates, you can't hear the coach shouting. . . you can't even hear the ref."

Bertos is unsure if he will get game time on Monday but is just happy serving his apprenticeship, even if Tehran's gun-welding police have left him feeling uneasy about his surroundings.

"It (Tehran) is not a place you'd come on a holiday but no matter where you go to play soccer, it's a fantastic opportunity. I'm just happy to be part of the squad, to see how they prepare," he said.

Bertos is one of five uncapped All Whites in Tehran – joining Allan Pearce, Glen Moss, Rupesh Puna and Tony Lochhead – as coach Mick Waitt starts the rebuilding process after June's disappointing Confederation's Cup campaign in France.

The ultimate aim is the 2006 World Cup in Germany, though New Zealand's immediate focus is blooding players for January's Athens Olympic Games qualifiers in Auckland.

The All Whites have played Iran twice before, drawing 0-0 in Auckland in 1973 before a 2-1 loss at the President's Cup in Korea five years later.

"Iran beat South Korea to become Asian champions and obviously Korea had a great World Cup so it's going to be tough in front of 90,000-plus fans. . . we'll just have to see if we can upset their rhythm," Bertos said.

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