Within the space of a fortnight New Zealand went from being global unknowns to creating an unthinkable achievement on the world’s greatest football stage. The 2010 FIFA World Cup™ will be deemed a watershed for New Zealand football, not just domestically, but also for the standing of the All Whites in the global arena. Departing the tournament undefeated in a group which included the reigning world champions Italy is, in the words of coach Ricki Herbert, an “outstanding achievement.”
Also pitted against central European nation Slovakia and battle-hardened South American qualifiers Paraguay was no easy ride for the Kiwis, yet three draws meant the team were a chance to qualify until the final whistle of their last match. The Kiwis concluded their South Africa adventure with a battling scoreless draw against Paraguay, where a win would have meant topping the group and a Round of 16 meeting with Japan. As it was the Kiwis missed qualification by a whisper, finishing above the Azzurri, and becoming just the fourth nation to be eliminated without losing any of their group matches, following in the footsteps of Scotland (1974), Cameroon (1982) and Belgium (1998).
If there were any question marks about the fighting qualities of the All Whites, then an injury-time equaliser against Slovakia in their group opener dispelled such doubts. The New Zealanders work ethic was unwavering throughout the match with Winston Reid’s late header securing a deserved reward. There followed a share of the points against Italy where, with the Kiwis having taken an early lead through star striker Shane Smeltz, the four-time world champions were forced to come from behind via the penalty spot.
Captain Ryan Nelsen, arguably New Zealand’s most decorated player of all-time, led the team with heart and passion, marshalling his inexperienced backline colleagues, Tommy Smith and Reid, who, remarkably, did not make their respective international debuts until March and May respectively. Goalkeeper Mark Paston was in sparkling form in all three matches rarely putting a foot wrong and reprising his heroics from the qualifying play-off against Bahrain where his penalty save was pivotal.
The Kiwis were able to field the same starting line-up in all three matches, perhaps the most surprising aspect however was that the formation included three genuine forwards. The powerfully-built duo of Chris Killen and Rory Fallon complemented Smeltz, who has a prolific goalscoring record in the A-League. In midfield, the veteran duo of Simon Elliott and Ivan Vicelich had seemingly been drinking from the fountain of youth with performances that were both inspired and remarkable in equal measure. Not only are the pair now in their mid 30’s, but both had gone into the tournament severely hampered by a lack of domestic football. In fact, Elliott has not played club football since last year having been left off the roster of the San Jose Earthquakes prior to the start of the current MLS season. Vicelich, a semi-professional with Auckland City in the New Zealand domestic competition, had not taken to the field since March.
"We are proud and disappointed at the same time,” said Herbert after the final match against Paraguay. “We remained unbeaten but are still eliminated. I am proud, and no one takes away from me what we have done here. Not many more teams played as attacking as us with three strikers. To finish the tournament unbeaten and above defending champions Italy is an astounding achievement and something we should all be proud of."
The Rugby-besotted nation caught a serious dose of football fever after the opening draw against Slovakia, so the respect achieved in holding Italy will long resonate for the game which has taken huge strides in recent times. In the space of the last 12 months, New Zealand has seen record international and domestic attendance records, witnessed their U-17 side create history as the first team to reach the knockout stages of a FIFA tournament, all topped by the unexpected success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The spin-off benefits of South Africa 2010 are almost immeasurable for New Zealand football. Some have called the All Whites performance the greatest New Zealand sporting achievement of all-time; rich praise indeed for a nation where sport is a prominent part of daily life. There are plans for a ticker-tape parade to allow supporters to pay homage to their new national heroes indicative of the scale of the team’s achievements. The nation’s indigenous population now suddenly have household names with which they can identify with Jeremy Christie, Leo Bertos, Fallon and Reid all of Maori heritage. New Zealand, much like Australia four years ago, will undoubtedly aim to build further on a large grassroots support and increase the game’s profile further. The legacy of Ryan Nelsen’s class of 2010 is likely to be felt for many years to come in the ‘Land of the long white cloud.’