Fallon, Kiwi football missionary
© AFP

Twelve months ago, Rory Fallon would not have dreamed of playing international football, let alone rubbing shoulders with the elite of world football at a FIFA Word Cup™. Now the Plymouth Argyle man is front and centre for his nation as they look to make their mark at South Africa 2010.

All Whites coach Ricki Herbert described the 1-1 draw against Slovakia in their opening Group F encounter as his country's best ever result. And the 191cm target-man Fallon played a key role in the forward line in Rustenburg against a combative Slovakia defence, which was finally breached when the Kiwis scored an injury-time equaliser via young defender Winston Reid.

It was Fallon who put New Zealand on the path to that glorious moment at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium when, last November, he headed a historic winner against Bahrain to catapault the Kiwis into their first FIFA World Cup for 28 years. After that match, Fallon, whose father Kevin was assistant coach at Spain 1982, spoke of his desire to help push New Zealand football in the rugby-mad nation through the All Whites' actions on the field. Despite appearances for England at youth level, the 28-year-old Plymouth striker is as proud of his heritage as anyone in the current squad.

The drama of New Zealand's last-gasp leveller against the central Europeans left Fallon, and indeed the entire nation, on a high. It does not get any easier, though, for the New Zealanders who now have to face up to further tough group matches against Italy and Paraguay. Yet Fallon is not satisfied with a point against Slovakia and now has the world champions in his crosshairs. It is not only about winning a football match for Fallon, though, who enjoys playing the role of football missionary in the 'Land of the long white cloud'.

"It [beating Italy] would just totally change the landscape of the nation," he told FIFA. "And that's what we're trying to do, we're trying to be the front-runners to show that football is the biggest sport on the planet, and as a No1 sport that New Zealand takes notice of. When we beat Bahrain, they stood up and noticed us. If we get through to the next round, we can change New Zealand. This [holding Slovakia] is a wonderful, magnificent moment for football in New Zealand. We never stopped believing in ourselves, even with only ten minutes to go. We missed a great chance, but we knew we'd get another before the end. It's unbelievable, and I think football now has a decent chance of becoming the most popular sport back home."

Overcoming Italy next Monday would undoubtedly be one of the all-time great FIFA World Cup giant-killings, and Marcello Lippi's Azzurri will underestimate the underdogs at their peril, given the famed New Zealand sporting resilience and spirit. Indeed just 12 months ago, Italy only edged past New Zealand by the odd goal in seven in a preparation match for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. "We're a big, strong team. Those diagonal ball and crosses can make it difficult for defenders. So we're going into the Italian game with confidence and hoping to get something out of it. I really believe that we can compete with the best. I really feel for football, and hopefully now there's a couple of New Zealand heroes for the kids."