New Zealand are daring to dream of an improbable place in the last 16 at the FIFA World Cup™ after their brave 1-1 draw with defending champions Italy at the Mbombela Stadium here on Sunday. The All Whites, ranked 78th in the world, took everything the four times world champions could throw at them and stayed alive for the knockout round with their second draw of the tournament.
The Italians proclaimed pre-match that defeat was unthinkable but it turned into the next worst thing as the New Zealanders defied the Serie A aristocrats after taking a shock early lead through Shane Smeltz. Vincenzo Iaquinta levelled with a penalty later in the first half but the Italians could not ram home the winner.
The draw puts both teams in Group F on two points with just a match remaining. The Kiwis will play group leaders Paraguay while the Italians play bottom side Slovakia on Thursday.
"I think that has stopped our nation of four million people," New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert said. "It's an incredible result and it's way above anything we have achieved before against the stature of our competitors.
"Anything is possible and we're doing okay for a team who some said shouldn't be playing at this World Cup. Our Prime Minister [John Key] is here and there is plenty of excitement back home."
Anything is possible.
Inspirational skipper Ryan Nelsen, the Blackburn Rovers centre-back, said it was an amazing result for his under-valued team. "The guys put in an incredible effort. It's not just for us, but it's for our families and the people back in New Zealand, and hopefully they can be proud of what we've done," he said.
"And now what it's done is give us a great opportunity that even a draw against Paraguay might get us through. It's something really exciting and who would have thought that going into the last game of the group that we're still in it and we can really do it."
Goalscorer Smeltz said he was trying to get on the end of a flick on at the free kick to give the All Whites a stunning early lead. "I am absolutely delighted to score, especially against Italy and I guess the meaning behind it of giving us a point as well against the reigning world champions," Smeltz said. "It was obviously not the prettiest goal I've scored, but to score at a World Cup is fantastic and especially against Italy."
Goalkeeper Mark Paston, who was close to the man-of-the-match with his series of dazzling saves to keep New Zealand in the contest, said he found the game fun despite his heavy workload. "As a goalkeeper it's almost easier to play in those games than when you have nothing to do," Paston said.
"I always knew it was going to be a tough game and I quite enjoyed it. The game went like a blur and hopefully over the next few days I'll be able to have a proper look at it, but the guys were incredible out there. Defensively, we were pretty sound and keeping their shots down to a minimum and made them cross the ball, which I like as a 'keeper."