A generation in the making, New Zealand have finally returned to the FIFA World Cup™. Not only was the wait a long one, but All Whites supporters had to endure 90 minutes of nail-biting tension before celebrations could get underway. Following a scoreless draw against Bahrain in the first-leg of the Asia/Oceania play-off last month, New Zealand edged home 1-0, ending a 28-year wait since their first and only appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
Striker Rory Fallon scored the only goal of the game just before half-time but equally famous in the years to come will be goalkeeper Mark Paston, who saved a penalty from Sayed Mohamed five minutes after the interval. New Zealand’s joy is Bahrain’s heartbreak, of course, with the beaten Asians forced to endure a second consecutive elimination at the final hurdle after losing to Trinidad and Tobago in 2005.
An all-time record crowd of 35,000 turned out in Wellington to see history achieved as the Rugby-mad nation caught a serious dose of football fever. Fans in the Cake-Tin, as the stadium is affectionately known, turned the stands into a sea of white, punctuated only by a daub of red, where a hardy group of Bahrain supporters were situated. Much like Australia’s rise to prominence following their equally dramatic play-off qualification against Uruguay four years ago, New Zealand will now look to enjoy prosperity across many areas of the game.
The scoreline did not reflect the quantity of goalmouth action, with both teams creating a number of openings, and only some heroic defending and the bounce of the ball the difference between a different storyline being written. All Whites forward Chris Killen hit the crossbar with a volley in the first half, while strike-partner Shane Smeltz was inches away from a clinching goal in the dying moments.
Bahrain too had their moments, notably when they had the ball in the net a few minutes from full time, but the referee had already halted proceedings for an earlier foul on Paston. By far the most significant moment was a 50th-minute penalty awarded after New Zealand fullback Tony Lochhead bundled over Abdulla Omar.
“I thought I might have cost us a trip to the World Cup, but 'Pastie' has come up with an unbelievable save and saved my skin,” said a happy but relieved Lochhead after the match reflecting on an evening which could have ended so differently for the Wellington Phoenix defender. “It was a pretty nerve-wrecking moment, but when he saved it I was celebrating like I had scored myself. When the referee pointed to the spot, the heart was in the mouth.”
Man of the moment Paston was both humble and casual in reflecting on his match-defining moment. The tall shotstopper would likely not even have been on the pitch but for a suspension to regular No1 Glen Moss. “They were trying to yell out from the sideline to go to my right, so good job I went that way, because that (message) didn’t get to me… I just guessed,” he admitted.
Long way to the top
The squad of part-timers which reached Spain 1982 pulled off an incredible feat with a number of stunning results over a then-record 15 match qualification campaign, and are regarded in New Zealand as icons of the sport. Indeed, such is the magnitude of their achievement, the New Zealanders had not since been 90 minutes away from qualification until this campaign. Four years ago. the All Whites were in a very different place and even failed to reach the Oceania final, usurped from their position of continental prominence by the Solomon Islands.
Prior to the Bahrain match, the class of '82 were paraded around the pitch to rapturous applause, and the omen proved to be a good one. Absent from the pre-game celebrations was current coach Ricki Herbert, and assistant Brian Turner, both integral members of that qualification campaign. Herbert though was able to take his bow after the match, with the highly-regarded mentor taking a deserved lap-of-honour after his team. The synergy with the legendary squad was everywhere, with goalscoring hero Rory Fallon the son of the '82 side's assistant coach Kevin Fallon.
Taking over the reins of the national team in 2005 in the wake of the last FIFA World Cup campaign, Herbert’s contribution cannot be underestimated. A place in the annals of New Zealand football is assured, given his dual achievements as a player and now as a coach. "We've waited 27 years to resurrect something very important to us," said Herbert. “This group have given it everything, four years of total commitment. We’re back, we’re there. South Africa, here we come.”