Tuesday, June 15, 2010
All right for All Whites
Andrew Warshaw, Royal Bafokeng Stadium
After overseeing New Zealand's 1-1 draw with Slovakia, Ricki Herbert was so wrapped up in the occasion he thought he was still on the other side of the world in a different time zone.
• Herbert proud of fighting spirit
"Tonight is a special night" the New Zealand coach said after the lunchtime kick-off between his team and Slovakia."Tonight we have thrown some really good punches. Tonight they'll be in a pretty good mood back home."
Given what his side had just achieved, you could forgive Herbert getting ahead of himself. The last time he tasted World Cup action was as a central defender in New Zealand's first ever appearance in the finals. It wasn't a pleasant experience: three thumping defeats, 12 goals conceded. That was 28 years ago.
More than a generation later, as coach of a country where rugby and cricket still rule the roost, Herbert's latest vintage pulled off one of the most remarkable results in recent history as they snatched a last-gasp equaliser to stun Slovakia, by no means a football powerhouse but very much so when compared to a country that doesn't even have a professional league.
Winston Reid's sweet header three minutes into injury time ensured New Zealand's first ever World Cup point with their first ever World Cup goal - against a team ranked 34th in the world. It was rich reward for the tournament's weakest nation who only reached the finals thanks to a play-off victory over Bahrain.
Until a month ago, New Zealand hadn't beaten European opposition for eight years. "I'm a Kiwi boy and I couldn't be prouder that the sport I love is going to be leading the news bulletins back home," Herbert said. "We keep on dreaming."
With a defence marshalled by skipper Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn - one of only five European-based players in their starting line-up and by far the most experienced - New Zealand more than held their own throughout a pedestrian first half played in a bitterly cold wind.
Nelsen had pledged his team would make "every New Zealander" proud but when Robert Vittek met a diagonal cross early in the second half, it seemed their luck was out. The Slovaks, lacking conviction in the opening period, were reinvigorated and with the likes of Liverpool's Martin Skrtel and Manchester City's Vladimir Weiss in the starting XI, seemed certain to push on.
But they failed to capitalise on their lead and paid the penalty when Reid, at fault for the first goal, made amends with virtually the last attack of the game, his header from an inch-perfect curling cross scraping the post on the way in.
What is it about teams in all-white setting the tournament alight? First Ghana against Serbia; now New Zealand. Reid was engulfed by ecstatic teammates after this most unexpected of results.
Reid arrived in Denmark, where he plays his club football, aged 11 and represented his adopted country at Under-21 level before switching to the nation of his birth and making his senior debut only a month ago.
To put Tuesday's performance into perspective, New Zealand had only ever beaten European opposition three times in 28 attempts. Their attack was led by Rory Fallon, whose Plymouth Argyle team were relegated from the English Championship in May but whose qualification-clinching goal against Bahrain made him a national hero.
"I've said 100 times I'll never lose faith in these boys," Herbert said. "I thought this was our best chance to get something and I'd have been disappointed to have lost. We've worked so hard for years to get something out of a World Cup. We're not a one-dimensional side any more, with just one up front. I thought Winston got on the wrong side of the player for their goal so he certainly made amends. He's been a great coup for us."
Next up for New Zealand, ranked 78th in the world, is the small matter of world champions Italy. "They are a fantastic team and I don't know how we'll do against them," said Herbert, who nevertheless pledged to stick with his adventurous 4-3-3 formation. "Who knows they will do to us - or not. What I do know is that we are going to enjoy the next 24 hours."