New Zealand drawing with the world champions? The All Whites unbeaten and in with a genuine chance of reaching the last 16? It is, as Shane Smeltz reflected this evening, "unthinkable".
Arguably just as unthinkable is the manner in which Ricki Herbert's side set about taking a fully merited point from the all-star Italians. Faced with a side 74 places above them in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the Kiwis would have been forgiven for taking the default underdogs' approach: field a 4-5-1 in which the solitary striker runs himself to a standstill.
As it was, and to the amazement of the Italian media, Smeltz, far from being an isolated lone runner, was flanked by two attacking colleagues in an adventurous 3-4-3. The result was a game in which Marcello Lippi's side were never able to lay siege to New Zealand's goal, and in which the Kiwis had chances of their own to take all three points. For the All Whites, attack really had proved the best form of defence.
"I think that has become a kind of hallmark with us," Smeltz told FIFA.com. "It hasn't always been that way – going back a few years, we used to go with one man up front and just tried to hit him and get support up when we could. But it's so, so difficult at this level for one striker to do that job and hold the ball up effectively, and I think going with the three really works well for us. Whether it's a flat three or we have one just behind, it gives us a different dimension and there's also scope to change it slightly depending on the opposition. Obviously no system is absolutely perfect, but I think our results speak for themselves."
Tactics, of course, only tell part of the story. After all, as any coach will testify, a system's success is always dependent on the ability and application of those carrying it out. In that respect, the Kiwis were exemplary in Nelspruit, providing a disciplined and diligent performance that yielded what is unquestionably the greatest result in the nation's history.
"It's incredible," enthused a beaming Smeltz. "It's actually difficult to find words to do it justice. We've just been out to see all the fans who stayed behind, and to see the joy on their faces – it blows you away. I'm sure there will also be plenty of parties in full swing back home right about now, and to know that we've played a part in something like that is just tremendous. We're riding a wave at the moment and hopefully it keeps going for a while yet."
Incredibly, that wave could even carry New Zealand into the Round of 16, provided they manage to spring one more surprise in their final Group F match against Paraguay. Merely being in this position represents uncharted territory for the All Whites, and Smeltz admits that it will take time for the players to appreciate the significance of their achievement. "For us to still be in contention, it's unthinkable. It's going to take a while to sink in because absolutely no-one expected it of us. But we're not getting ahead of ourselves. We'll just look forward to the Paraguay game, give it everything and, if we can manage to pull it off, it would be beyond anyone's dreams."