New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert is confident that his players will not be struck by first night nerves as they seek to make FIFA World Cup history against Slovakia tomorrow.
The All Whites are appearing in the finals for only the second time and, having lost all three matches in Spain in 1982, are still looking for a first point on football's biggest stage. "There are a few nerves, a sense of anticipation," admitted Herbert. "But that is not a bad thing. The players are very focused on what they have to do."
Regarded as one of the weakest squads in the tournament, New Zealand will have their work cut out containing a talented Slovakia side that is making its first appearance in the finals as an independent nation. However, a surprise friendly win over Serbia in the build-up to the tournament was proof that Herbert's squad can get the better of more technically gifted opponents.
Captain Ryan Nelsen, who also skippers Blackburn in the English Premier League and is New Zealand's best-known player internationally, said he and his team-mates are itching to get going. "There is only so much training and preparation work you can do. The country's buzzing and we just want to get started and be part of it," he said.
Herbert's options have been restricted by the loss of bustling midfielder Tim Brown, who will not be risked against the Slovakians as he completes his recovery from shoulder surgery at the end of May but should be available for the second group game against Italy. In Brown's absence, defender Ivan Vicelich is expected to bolster central midfield and will share responsibility for keeping tabs on Slovakia's captain and playmaker, Marek Hamsik, with fellow veteran Simon Elliott.
"Ivan certainly doesn't lack experience and that might be what we need in this game, someone who is calm and patient on the ball," Herbert said. "He is a strong influence in the team and, with Ryan at the back, it gives us experience through the spine."
Slovakia, who qualified by topping a group that included highly-rated neighbours the Czech Republic and fellow qualifiers Slovenia, go into the match quietly confident of starting their campaign with a win, according to midfielder Vladimir Weiss. "We saw the New Zealanders play against Serbia," the Manchester City player said. "We know what we can expect from them but I believe the match will turn out as we all want."
Weiss is the son of the Slovakia coach, also called Vladimir. If, as is expected, he starts, he will become the sixth player to play under his coach father at a World Cup. He follows Uruguay's Milton Viera (1966), Italian defender Paolo Maldini (2002), Niko Kranjcar of Croatia (2002), Serbia and Montenegro's Dusan Petkovic (2006) and Michael Bradley, who featured in the United States opener here against England with father Bob in the dugout.
As well as Hamsik, the dangermen for Slovakia are striker Stanislav Sestak, who plays in the Bundesliga for Bochum, and Miroslav Stoch, a winger who has just been sold by Chelsea to Turkish giants Fenerbahce after a succesful season on loan at Dutch champions Twente.