The All Whites are huge underdogs so even a point in South Africa will be seen as a success
The extraordinary elation in the New Zealand technical area after Iraq were held to a goalless draw in the Confederations Cup a year ago begged the question: what would the Kiwi response be if they won any games in the World Cup?
Twelve months later, the All Whites may have just the opportunity to secure that victory. Another draw is a far more realistic goal though, and should it be obtained – from Slovakia, Italy or Paraguay – it would doubtless trigger immense scenes of jubilation throughout the country’s entire sporting community.
New Zealanders are pragmatic about their team’s prospects in South Africa, with supporters and the media being consistent in acknowledging a single point would be a substantial achievement. Some squad members have talked of qualifying for the second phase, but with no greater conviction than leaders of minor political parties predicting election successes.
In South Africa, the All Whites can expect to face opponents with physical capabilities and technical skills far superior to any previously encountered.
David toppling Goliath
However, this is a cup competition and every one of those has seen examples of David toppling Goliath. As coach Ricki Herbert says: “If Senegal can beat France [as they did in 2002], we can beat Italy.” He could have added: “And if North Korea can overcome Italy in 1966 then so can we.”
The Azzurri are notoriously sluggish World Cup starters and could display the same lethargy as when scraping home 4-3 in a friendly with the Oceania champions last June.
Slovakia and Paraguay provide likelier sources of reward as neither has the pedigree to enter a World Cup with a huge degree of confidence – and any they do have could wither if they struggle to break down Herbert’s five-man defensive shield.
With the competent Mark Paston in goal and a solid rearguard marshalled by inspirational skipper Ryan Nelsen, New Zealand certainly have the potential to frustrate. Midfielders Simon Elliott and Tim Brown are also adept in their defensive duties. Sadly, though, there is little creativity in midfield and the Kiwi strikers, unproven at top international level, will probably be starved of possession.
Any draw, then, is likely to be scoreless. But, if achieved, be sure to look out for some memorable celebrations.
The view from New Zealand
“New Zealand will be much more competitive than some people think but they still won’t make it beyond the group stage. They can perhaps grab a draw or even a win against Slovakia in their first game but it will be more about playing for pride against Paraguay and especially Italy. Still, the All Whites will do us all proud simply by being there.”
Terry Serepisos, owner of Wellington Phoenix
“It is going to be tough as our players come from such varying levels of football. But I am pleased to hear comments coming out of the squad talking about ‘getting a result’ and ‘aiming to qualify for the next round’. Our guys can score, but we have to be realistic about getting through the group.”
Steve Sumner, 1982 World Cup captain