There is a sense of both frustration and pride in the New Zealand camp as they prepare to return home from Nigeria. Pride after their performance in the group stage, and frustration after their capitulation to Nigeria in the second round. "We emerged from the first round with the belief that we could make an impression in the knockout stage, that we weren't just making up the numbers. But at the end of the day, the Nigerians were too strong, too fast and kept possession too well. Our aim was to hit them on the break, but it turned out to be too big a task for us," said a demoralised Gordon Murie, captain of New Zealand, after the match.
The Kiwis were completely overwhelmed on 5 November in Abuja, and it was a long time before the punch-drunk players emerged from the dressing room, at which point Murie spoke candidly about the performance: "We were never able to cope with their speed and overall team play. We did our best - our defence worked well in the three group games, but tonight we weren't able to contain the Nigerians. I'm disappointed we didn't defend better this evening and that it was so easy for them to score, as normally defending is our strong point," says the Kiwi, who wants to continue playing football at university in the USA before joining a professional team, perhaps in MLS.
"Naturally, I'm disappointed with the result. You can never be happy to concede five goals. When we came here, we knew the key would be to battle hard in every game because we'd be up against world-class opposition. We did our best, but we couldn't handle the Nigerians. Still, I'm proud of the boys, and I'm convinced that they'll emerge from this tournament as better players and better people," said coach Stephen Cain.
It should not be forgotten that New Zealand pulled off a remarkable achievement by qualifying for the last 16, while remaining unbeaten throughout. After 16 appearances in FIFA tournaments, this was the first time that the All Whites had progressed past the first round. "People must remember that football is not as big in New Zealand as it is in the 23 other countries taking part," said Murie. "Playing in a World Cup is a great experience, and it's an honour to represent your country," he added.
But the Kiwis will not go home with the five goals shipped against Nigeria dominating their thoughts, as they have many other memories from earlier on. "My first memory is the point we won against Costa Rica, which set the ball rolling. On a personal note, I'll always remember the goal I scored against Burkina Faso with pride, as without it, we wouldn't have qualified," said Murie.
But of course the real highlight came on 31 October against Turkey. "Jack Hobson-McVeigh's 92nd-minute goal against Turkey put us through to the last 16, so it was truly unforgettable," recalled the New Zealand defender with a tinge of sadness. Then, pushing the disappointment aside, he insisted on taking the positives from the defeat: "Despite the result, playing in a massive stadium in front of so many fans was amazing. The noise of the crowd was really impressive; I've never played in front of so many people."
There is no doubt the All Whites will treasure their foray beyond the group stage and return home determined to make it more than just a one-off in the annals of New Zealand football.