New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert hailed his team after a 4-3 loss to world champions Italy in a FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 warm-up near Pretoria on Wednesday.

The All Whites led an experimental Azzurri line-up three times at cold, wet Super Stadium before succumbing to a couple of goals from Juventus star Vincenzo Iaquinta.

And while 2006 FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Marcelo Lippi beat a hasty retreat from the winter conditions as the final whistle blew, 48-year-old Herbert was happy to share his joy. "This was a first class performance and will do wonders for our confidence. We ran out of steam in the closing stages as some of the squad have been inactive for a while.

This was a first class performance and will do wonders for our confidence. We ran out of steam in the closing stages as some of the squad have been inactive for a while,
New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert.

"I have a young side with a lot of belief and they showed it tonight against the world champions. They scored three nice goals and hopefully we can get some more when the Cup begins. We are in a tough group and I consider us 'dark horses'. All our previous matches in the competition have been lost so it would be nice to get a draw, or better still a win," he told reporters.

New Zealand, a country best known for its rugby union prowess, face European champions Spain on Sunday in the north-west mining town of Rustenburg in their opening Group A fixture. Australia-based goalkeeper Glen Moss shared the happiness of Herbert as New Zealand demonstrated that they may not be quite the whipping boys everyone is anticipating in a pool completed by South Africa and Iraq.

"We took a lot more positives than negatives out of this match and it was great the way we came at Italy. Now we can look forward to tackling Spain with more confidence," he said.

Although silver-haired Lippi introduced many of his stars only in the second half, he could not have imagined conceding three goals against a country ranked 78 places below Italy on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Kiwis lead three times
The goal fest for a small crowd began early when Oceania Footballer of the Year Shane Smeltz headed in a Leo Bertos free-kick and it took Italy 20 minutes to level through Alberto Gilardino. Italy were suspect in the air and Celtic striker Chris Killen took advantage to powerfully head home a 42nd-minute Bertos corner, one of nine forced by the All Whites without reply.

Gilardino levelled again soon after half-time only for Killen to convert a spot kick before substitute Iaquinta turned party pooper with two goals inside five minutes. The Italians will play a training match against a club side on Friday before launching their Group B campaign four days later at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria when USA provide the opposition.

FIFA Confederations Cup holders Brazil and Egypt are the other teams in what appears to be the stronger group in a competition designed to test the readiness of South Africa to stage the 2010 FIFA World Cup.