All white on the night
If you had popped down to your local bookies before the World Cup began and put a bet on New Zealand to be the only team to leave South Africa undefeated, not only would you have got very long odds, but by the time you left the store the proverbial men in white coats would have been waiting outside ready to whisk you off to the nearest asylum.
Along with North Korea and Honduras, the All Whites started their campaign in South Africa as huge underdogs. In a group featuring the World champions Italy, a well-drilled Paraguay and a Slovakian side that impressed in qualification, most pundits saw the Kiwis as whipping boys and predicted a swift return to New Zealand without a point, or even a goal, to show for their efforts.
The omens were not good. In last year’s Confederations Cup the All Whites were trounced 5-0 by Spain and celebrated a goalless draw with Iraq like they had just won a particularly lucrative lottery syndicate. Their manager, Ricki Herbert, was also a survivor from the 1982 World Cup squad that failed to pick up a point from their three group games in Spain.
On top of that, New Zealand didn’t even have a professional league, with their only professional team, Wellington Phoenix, (also managed by Herbert) plying their trade in Australia’s much maligned A-League. With Robbie Fowler still a star turn Down Under, it’s easy to see why.
The players that made up their threadbare squad almost made a mockery of the term journeymen, with an unattached veteran pulling the strings in midfield, a former AFC Wimbledon striker leading the line and a full-time banker, ahem, looking to cash in on their underdog status. Only the All White’s captain, Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers, was playing at the top-level week in week out, with strikers Rory Fallon and Chris Killen plying their trade in the second tier of English football.
When their Antipodean neighbours were put to the sword by a rampant Germany in their opening fixture, fears grew that New Zealand would suffer the same fate as they prepared to face a Slovakian team that edged a tough qualification group ahead of Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
To the surprise of many observers, New Zealand acquitted themselves well against the technically gifted Slovaks, defending resolutely and passing the ball around in a way that England could only dream of. The match may not have set pulses racing (like Shakira had in the opening ceremony), as two unfancied teams slugged it out in the afternoon sun, but their was certainly no lack of effort or organisation from the All Whites. Winston Reid and Ryan Nelsen were outstanding at the back, coping admirably with the dangerous Robert Vittek and the speedy Vladimir Weiss, while Simon Elliott provided much-needed energy and experience in the middle of the park.
When Slovakia took the lead early in the second-half, New Zealand were expected to crumble and allow the Slovaks to pick up their first win at a World Cup. But the All Whites sensed a record of their own was within their grasp as they searched for an unlikely equalizer. It duly came in the fifth minute of stoppage time, courtesy of a glancing Winston Reid header. Cue delirium on the sidelines and in the stands, as the Kiwis celebrated their first ever point in a World Cup finals.
Next up though was Italy, where normal service would be resumed. Or so we thought. The Azzurri had laboured to a point in their opener against Paraguay and were a pale shadow of the side that lifted the World Cup four years earlier. Still, they had some world-class operators like Danielle De Rossi in their ranks who would eventually break the All Whites’ stubborn resistance.
But Ricki Herbert’s side had other ideas, and even had the temerity to take an unlikely lead through Shane Smeltz’s close-range strike, albeit from an offside position. The Italians were understandably livid, but were later awarded a dubious penalty to level matters so could have few complaints at the final whistle. The heroes of the hour were skipper Ryan Nelsen, who defended the New Zealand goal like it was Helm’s Deep, and the All Whites’ goalkeeper Mark Paston, who produced a series of stunning saves to keep the Italians at bay. West Brom’s Chris Wood was inches away from one of the biggest shocks of World Cup history when he shook of the attentions of an ailing Fabio Cannavaro and steered his shot just wide of the post in the dying minutes. The result was undoubtedly the greatest in the country’s footballing history and poured scorn on those mean-spirited commentators who suggested that New Zealand had no right to be at the World Cup after qualifying from a group featuring such football behemoths as Fiji and New Caledonia.
Going into their third game, New Zealand were level on points with Italy and above Slovakia and had a real chance of progressing beyond the group stage. In the end though, they came up just short, playing out a bore draw with Paraguay in a match that demonstrated their obvious attacking limitations and prompted a spike in the popularity of watching paint dry.
Despite their exit at the group stage, New Zealanders can be more than proud of a group of players who punched well above their weight on the world stage and were the only country to leave South Africa with their unbeaten record intact, a fact set to be immortalised in pub quizzes across the land. Spain may have picked up the trophy, but New Zealand take home the bragging rights from the 2010 World Cup.