WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Football has defended its decision to sack Olympic coach Des Buckingham as an "opportune piece of strategic alignment" in the wake of the Tokyo Games' postponement to 2021.
Englishman Buckingham was contracted to take the 'OlyWhites' to Tokyo in 2020 but was replaced by national coach Danny Hay on Friday, triggering criticism from fans who felt the decision was harsh on Buckingham.
Hay was originally set to take over the under-23 team from September once the Games finished, but New Zealand Football (NZF) said the changeover had been brought forward due to the "ongoing impact of COVID-19" and to provide "clarity" to players.
"I think (the criticism is) a fair reaction in the first instance," NZF Chief Executive Andrew Pragnell said in comments published by the New Zealand Herald.
"Once the Olympics were postponed, we had to get the lie of the land and understand if there was going to be any other international activity through until the end of Des's contract and it became apparent there wasn't.
"We're gutted for Des but it also presents a pretty opportune piece of strategic alignment."
Under Olympic rules, countries participate at the Games with their under-23 sides, although three over-age players are allowed to be included.
Pragnell said 35-year-old Buckingham, a former coach of the under-23 side for English club Stoke City, had been "incredibly professional throughout" the period following the Tokyo Games' postponement in late-March.
"It's impossible not to be disappointed and no-one is kidding themselves that you wouldn't be," Pragnell added.
Hay will be charged with aligning the programmes of the national 'All Whites' side and the under-23 OlyWhites leading into the 2021 Games, which were delayed by a year due to the coronavirus.
Hay said he would be "bitterly disappointed" if he were in Buckingham's shoes.
"It's really tough on him, I feel for him. I think he's done a fantastic job with not just the (under) 23's but the (under) 20's as well, as well as his staff," he said.
"A lot of this is out of people's control with a lot of turmoil going on around the world, and New Zealand and New Zealand Football are no different from that."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Richard Pullin)