New Zealand claimed their place at next year's FIFA World Cup™ finals with a pulsating win over Bahrain today in the second leg of their play-off. Striker Rory Fallon headed home the only goal of the game on the stroke of half-time, while goalkeeper Mark Paston also saved a penalty to see the All Whites through to South Africa.
In front of a capacity crowd at Wellington's Westpac Stadium on Saturday night, New Zealand repeated the efforts of the national team of 1982. The 35,194 boisterous fans, the largest crowd to watch a football match in New Zealand, made their presence felt with a continuous cacophony that started well before the opening whistle and continued long after referee Jorge Larrionda blew for full-time. The result gave the All Whites a 1-0 aggregate win following the goalless draw in Manama on 10 October.
"This group of players has given everything to achieve this dream, everything over the last four years," said New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert, who was a member of the defensive line that played in Spain. "It's incredible. We're back. We're there."
New Zealand skipper Ryan Nelsen, paid tribute to the 35,100 fans in Wellington - a record for a football match in the country. "The crowd was incredible and I don't know if we could have won it without them," he said. "They were our 12th man today and they got us home. I've played in some incredible atmospheres but this is right up there."
The hosts were under early pressure conceding two corners and having defender Ben Sigmund yellow-carded in just the third minute. They gave Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Mohammed Jaffar his first test in the eighth minute when a Shane Smeltz header across the goalmouth from a Leo Bertos free-kick found Nelsen, but his looping header found the top of the net.
Striker Chris Killen almost broke the deadlock in the 19th minute when he sent a delightful left-foot volley from the edge of the penalty area beyond the Bahrain goalkeeper but off the crossbar. Soon after attacking midfielder Bertos, having made his presence felt with a number of early runs at the defence, sent a right-footed free-kick just wide of Jaffar's left-hand post.
All Whites goalkeeper Paston was on hand on the half-hour to dive low to his left and deny a snap volley in front of goal by Bahrain front man Jaycee John. Jaffar then produced a superb reflex save from a goalbound header by Fallon with half-time closing in, with Bertos again involved in the play in providing the cross.
But that was all in vain in the 45th minute when, from a Bertos corner, Fallon rose highest in the six-yard area to send a powerful header beyond Jaffar. On the balance of play the All Whites half-time lead was deserved, with Bertos and a Tony Lochhead providing most of the sting in the home side's attacking forays.
This group of players has given everything to achieve this dream, everything over the last four years. It's incredible. We're back. We're there.
The drama intensified in the 50th minute when referee Larrionda pointed to the penalty spot after Lochhead fouled Abdulla Ismaeel Omar. However, the combination of a poor strike from Sayed Mohamed Adnan and a perfectly-timed dive by Paston to his right kept the All Whites in front.
Nelsen increasingly stamped his class on the match, organising the defence as the visitors pushed forward in search of an equaliser.
Smeltz came close to doubling the tally with 20 minutes to play but his close-range strike flashed wide. Killen then sent an overhead kick on the six-yard box high over the cross bar with nine minutes remaining. Desperate defending from All Whites pair Ivan Vicelich and Nelsen spurred the home side on in the closing minutes.
In the end it was one shot for glory, and Fallon and New Zealand, took it.