New Zealand goalkeeper Mark Paston has already etched himself into the annals of his nation’s football history but next month he will have the opportunity to turn his story into legend at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The All Whites' 28-year wait to return to the world stage ended with a narrow play-off victory against Bahrain, with Paston the hero for a second-half penalty stop that proved the difference between success and failure.
With long-time rival Glen Moss suspended for the opening two group games in South Africa, Paston is a certainty to be between the sticks when the Kiwis open their campaign against Slovakia, before further matches against world champions Italy and Paraguay. The pair have duelled for the No1 jersey for the past five years, and although Moss was the incumbent at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, domestic form had Paston looking good to regain his position.
However as every sportsman is aware, football can be the ultimate rollercoaster, and perhaps Paston knows this better than anyone. Just a month after his heroics against Bahrain, Paston suffered a fractured leg, and while he is now back to full fitness, game-time remains a concern with the upcoming trans-Tasman international against Australia to be his first competitive match in six months.
Many predict the New Zealand shotstopper to be among the busier goalkeepers at South Africa 2010, not that Paston is daunted by such predictions. “Obviously we are underdogs, I think most people would agree with that,” he says. “So any sort of result we do get will be an upset, but I think ‘why not, why can’t we go and cause an upset?'. In each game we will go out and throw everything we have at our three opponents. Upsets do happen and hopefully we are going to cause one.”
The New Zealanders were unable to record a point at their only appearance on the world’s greatest football stage at Spain 1982 but the team has improved dramatically in recent years. Paston debuted as a 20-year-old way back in 1997, when many of the All Whites were still amateur players.
“You look through the teamsheet now and we have a fairly decent team, and that gives us confidence when we go out and play,” Paston told FIFA.com. “We have a lot more confidence when we play international football these days compared to the past when we had an amateur team and struggled. We have a lot more self-belief and where the guys play their club football is a major reason.”
Unfortunately, injury has been a common theme throughout Paston’s domestic and international career, most notably during the several seasons he spent in England with Bradford City and Walsall. Now, with those setbacks hopefully behind him, he is shining brightly with Wellington Phoenix in the Australian A-League, with Ricki Herbert his coach for both club and country.
Strangely, after a long distinguished career, it took that one save from Sayed Mohamed Adnan’s spot-kick in the qualifier against Bahrain to take his profile through the roof in a nation where few footballers are widely known. Paston, however, is somewhat of a reluctant hero, refusing to countenance the view that he saved the skin of club room-mate Tony Lochhead, who conceded the penalty. “Football is all about helping out your mate when needed and he has done that so many times for me,” says the 33-year-old, who lists his family as his biggest inspiration.
But what of that match in the New Zealand capital Wellington last November? “There aren’t too many nights out like that,” says Paston with typical Kiwi understatement. “Without question the Bahrain game was the highlight of my football career,” he adds, though admitting to only having watched the match back once. A repeat performance of such heroics at South Africa 2010 may mean Paston will have to adjust this list of career high-points.