A grown man, they say, is not supposed to cry. Less so a broad-shouldered colossus with a reputation for crunching challenges and catapulting his head in the path of flying studs.
But at 13:25 in Rustenburg, as the New Zealand national anthem reverberated around the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Ryan Nelsen was fighting – and fighting hard - to hold back tears. For, following 11 years as an international footballer, he was finally set to appear on a stage few could have ever envisaged a Kiwi gracing: the FIFA World Cup™.
“I was very, very emotional,” he told FIFA.com afterwards. “I’m always emotional when I play for my country, but this is the World Cup. It doesn’t get any bigger. It’s something I’ve dreamt about for a long time.”
Nelsen was also consumed by emotion at the final whistle, although this time it was one of ecstasy: New Zealand, who had started as underdogs against Slovakia yet dominated for much of the contest, had snatched an 11th-hour equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
“It was just an unbelievable feeling,” Nelsen enthused. “We never stopped believing. Even though they had most of the play, we knew that a chance could come our way. Even when we missed one late on (Shane Smeltz, unmarked at the back post, sent a close-range header wide in the 84th minute), we knew that in football it’s not over until the final whistle.”
“The atmosphere in the dressing room was really something. We’re obviously really pleased. There was a lot of signing, some traditional songs from back home, and the TV crew caught us dancing around,” Nelsen revealed, laughing. “Great times.”
Next up for New Zealand are reigning world champions Italy, and although it is a huge mis-match on paper, there are a few encouraging signs for the unfancied Kiwis. Indeed, the All Whites will be high on confidence following the result against Slovakia, while the pressure will be on Gli Azzurri after yesterday’s unconvincing 1-1 comeback draw with Paraguay.
This time last year Marcello Lippi’s charges only beat Ricky Herbert’s 4-3 in a friendly in Atteridgeville, and the Oceania champions feel they have improved significantly thereafter. Furthermore, Nelsen feels New Zealand have an aerial edge they can exploit. “We’ve got some really tall players who know how to use their height and can cause opponents trouble,” the Blackburn Rovers centre-back explained.
“Italy are obviously a big team, but we believe in ourselves. We’ve got to keep it tight at the back, put a few little things right from today, but we believe we can get a result.
“We’ve shown today that anything can happen in football. We’ve given ourselves a chance of making the last 16. We have two very difficult matches ahead against Italy and Paraguay, but that’s our target. For us to get through, to be honest would be the greatest sporting achievement in New Zealand’s history.”