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Kiwi Miracle: New Zealand's Six-Year Road to South Africa

Updated on November 19, 2017
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Russian Area Studies and Journalism.

A fan waves New Zealand's flag during a World Cup match against Paraguay in Polokwane, South Africa.
A fan waves New Zealand's flag during a World Cup match against Paraguay in Polokwane, South Africa. | Source

Every four years, the FIFA World Cup showcases many countries battling for glory on the biggest stage. Most nations seek that supremacy, but some countries might not even have that luxury.

Some countries participate in the tournament with nothing to lose, because reaching the World Cup is an achievement unto itself. Some countries look to search for an identity, primarily to banish painful memories that led to at irrelevance.

One such example happened for a country from as far as the other side of the world; New Zealand often regarded rugby, not football, as its primary sport. But with its rival Australia moving to play in Asia, New Zealand seized its chance and ended a 28-year wait to return to the World Cup in 2010. New Zealand exceeded expectations to finish as the World Cup's only unbeaten nation.

The result was impressive considering Oceania does not have an automatic berth for its confederation in World Cup qualifying.

Embarrassed and Left to Rue in Australia

On paper, New Zealand began its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign on Oct. 17, 2007.

In earnest, New Zealand began its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign on June 6, 2004.

It was in 2004 New Zealand suffered humiliation at the 2004 OFC Nations Cup, a tournament that included national teams from Polynesian and Melanesian islands. It was a tournament that many expected Australia and New Zealand, the two heavyweight of the region, to battle for continental supremacy and a place at the 2006 World Cup. Even after losing 1-0 to Australia in the opening game, New Zealand was expected to win its remaining games.

Instead, New Zealand suffered another stunning setback at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide, Australia.

Despite two goals from Vaughan Coveny, New Zealand ended up on the wrong side of an upset against Vanuatu: the 4-2 loss, New Zealand's first loss against Vanuatu, came at the worst time as the match proved to be Vanuatu's only points of the tournament. New Zealand finished with 19 goals after a 2-0 victory against Fiji, a match that was also the penultimate game in the six-team group. More important was that this was also New Zealand's last match not only of the tournament, but of the 2004 calendar year. The Solomon Islands stunned Australia with a 2-2 draw to send both nations through at New Zealand's expense. Australia would go on to reach the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

When it next played over a year later, New Zealand had a new manager and a familiar face.

New Zealand in action against Australia at London's Craven Cottage. This match happened to be the only match New Zealand played in 2005.
New Zealand in action against Australia at London's Craven Cottage. This match happened to be the only match New Zealand played in 2005. | Source

New Zealand against Brazil

More Opportunities for South Pacific

A member of New Zealand's squad at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Ricki Herbert became manager of New Zealand in 2005, the nation's first domestic-born coach in three decades. Reviving New Zealand to relevancy began with another match against Australia, coming in 2005 at London's Craven Cottage. The match proved significant as both nations met as continental rivals for the final time before Australia's move to Asia in 2006.

The 1-0 loss to Australia was only one step as the games were hard to come by for New Zealand: 12 matches, two years, only three victories - twice against Malaysia and 3-1 victory against Georgia in Altenkirchen, Germany. Against tougher competition, New Zealand incurred heavy defeats, including a 4-0 loss to Brazil in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006.

Before its 2-2 draw against Wales in 2007, New Zealand cancelled its friendly against Ukraine due to lack of available players. As New Zealand was not playing any games, Polynesian and Melanesian island nations kick off World Cup qualification altogether during the 2007 South Pacific Games. Many nations played in this tournament hoping to face New Zealand, and that included non-FIFA member Tuvalu. With these nations playing qualifying matches, their rankings rose and by September 2007, New Zealand sunk to its nadir with a ranking of 156th in the FIFA Rankings, New Zealand's lowest ranking ever.

This ranking came before New Zealand's World Cup qualifier against Fiji, originally scheduled in Auckland on Oct. 13, 2007. However, one day before, the FIFA World Cup's Bureau for the Organizing Committee canceled that qualifier. The basis of that decision was due to New Zealand's refusal to grant a visa to Fiji's goalkeeper Simione Tamanisau to enter New Zealand, because the player's father-in-law had ties to the 2006 Fijian coup d'etat.

Playoff Berth Assured in Auckland

On the Rebound

After Australia left to play in Asia's football federation, New Zealand were heavy favorites to win the 2008 OFC Nations Cup one more step to a World Cup play-off. New Zealand began qualifying on Oct. 17, 2007 as with Ivan Vicelich scoring the opening goal as New Zealand defeated Fiji 2-0. Shane Smeltz emerged as New Zealand's key player as his eight goals in that span helped New Zealand in qualifying, with the player scoring two goals in each of three consecutive qualifiers.

Many players did score their first goals for New Zealand, including one player during New Zealand's qualifier in Port Villa, Vanuatu. David Mulligan scored in stoppage time to secure New Zealand's vital victory and the result repeated five days later against these same opponents. Mulligan and Smeltz each recorded two goals in a 4-1 victory in which New Zealand hosted Vanuatu at Wellington's Westpac Stadium.

New Zealand's next match at this stadium in 2009 would prove historic.

Before New Zealand's qualifier in Noumea, New Caledonia in September 2008, Sigmund earned only his second cap against Wales in 2007. Sigmund earned his first cap back in 2000 against Oman, but his opening goal against New Caledonia set New Zealand to a 3-1 victory. Continental supremacy was confirmed five days later in Auckland. Smeltz's two goals and the first international goal from Jeremy Christie had New Zealand one step closer as the nation reached its highest ranking (54th) since 2003.

A 2-0 loss to Fiji in the rescheduled qualifier, played in Lautoka, Fiji on Nov. 19, 2008, also saw New Zealand lose goalkeeper Glen Moss to a red card. Moss's punishment became exacerbated when the goalkeeper swore profanities toward referee Lencie Fred.

Moss saw no more action as controversial circumstances resulted in a four-match suspension.


So Close in South Africa

Litmus Tests Abroad

On June 2, 2009, New Zealand, having won the 2008 OFC Nations Cup, found out it would host the second leg of the play-off against an Asian team for the World Cup to be played in November. New Zealand began 2009 losing 3-1 Thailand before playing in three friendlies ahead of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Following a 2-1 loss to Tanzania and a scoreless draw against Botswana, New Zealand next faced Italy in its final match before the Confederations Cup.

This game would be played in Atteridgeville, a suburb of Pretoria, South Africa; it would be here where New Zealand nearly caused a major upset. New Zealand looked to capitalize on an injury-riddled Italy squad without three players and managed to lead three times with Smeltz opening the scoring and Chris Killen adding two goals. Italy answered to tie the game on all three occasions. Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta each scored twice, with Iaquinta's goals coming in a four-minute span to take the lead.

Despite losing 4-3, New Zealand earned respect from fans worldwide.

New Zealand disappointed in the Confederations Cup despite winning its first ever point against Iraq, albeit coming after being eliminated following losses to Spain and South Africa. New Zealand left the tournament without a goal, last scoring a goal at this tournament in 1999. New Zealand did defeat Jordan in their first match following the Confederations Cup. The victory away in Amman gave confidence for New Zealand ahead of its two-legged tie against another Asian opponent.

Known by locals as the "Cake Tin," Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand hosted New Zealand's 2010 World Cup qualification play-off against Bahrain on November 14, 2009.
Known by locals as the "Cake Tin," Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand hosted New Zealand's 2010 World Cup qualification play-off against Bahrain on November 14, 2009. | Source
Rory Fallon (14) of New Zealand celebrate with teammates after scoring the decisive goal for New Zealand in a World Cup playoff against Bahrain.
Rory Fallon (14) of New Zealand celebrate with teammates after scoring the decisive goal for New Zealand in a World Cup playoff against Bahrain. | Source

The Goal at Wellington

45 Minutes to South Africa

Emerging from Nowhere

His road to earning his first cap against Jordan began over a decade earlier. Rory Fallon had dual citizenship for both England and New Zealand and opted to play the former at youth level. Fallon also played for New Zealand's under-16 squad at the 1998 Tournoi de Montaigu in Nice, France. In 2006, Herbert wanted Fallon to represent New Zealand before but thought the possibility would not happen. Original regulations mandated players with dual citizenship who wanted to switch allegiance needed to do so before their 21st birthday. Previously, Fallon had until March 2003 to shift allegiance. But Fallon never made an application to change his allegiance, and it seemed that Fallon would represent England for good.

That was until June 3, 2009; FIFA revised Article 18, removing age restrictions for changing associations for players who played for a country's national team at youth level.

The revision paved the way for Fallon to represent New Zealand, and on Aug. 3, 2009, Fallon received his first call-up to represent New Zealand. By then, New Zealand learned it would face Bahrain; its opponent upset Saudi Arabia on a late stoppage time goal. New Zealand looked to make something of the two-legged series and made a good start on Oct. 10, 2009. Fallon started in New Zeland's first leg at Bahrain in Manama, a result that finished scoreless thanks to goalkeeper Mark Paston and his crucial saves.

Fallon and Paston played pivotal roles when the nations met at Westpac Stadium. With halftime looming and aggregate still scoreless, New Zealand capitalized on a corner kick as Leo Bertos found Fallon, the latter heading in the goal before halftime. In the second half, Bahrain had a chance to go ahead bad defending saw Tony Lochhead bring down Abdullah Omar inside the penalty box. One goal stood between New Zealand and possible elimination, but Paston saved Mohamed Adnan's penalty kick.

Bahrain could not find that away goal, and in the end Westpac Stadium erupted in euphoria. New Zealand qualified for the World Cup.

Late Goal Salvages Point

Preparation ahead of Rustenburg

No question New Zealand achieved redemption on its brief but long qualification phase. But ahead of the 2010 World Cup, New Zealand lost three of four friendlies. New Zealand endured a difficult four-minute stretch against Mexico in the Rose Bowl while also allowing a stoppage-time goal against Australia in Melbourne before Slovenia's Milivoje Novakovic scored twice against New Zealand in Maribor, Slovenia.

New Zealand's notable result came in Klagenfurt, Austria; Smeltz scored the only goal against another upstart nation as New Zealand upset Serbia 1-0.

And so, 28 years after its first World Cup in Spain, New Zealand returned to the stadium where it began its Confederations Cup a year ago: Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Many people thought New Zealand had its best chance of earning a draw against Slovakia. However, New Zealand had a major blunder when Paston mistimed a clearance, allowing Robert Vittek to get an opportunity on goal. Although New Zealand had some early chances, another loss looked imminent when Robert Vittek scored a 50th-minute goal to put Slovakia up 1-0.

New Zealand got a lifeline late in stoppage time. He debuted for New Zealand in Australia before the tournament, and Winston Reid headed in the tying goal in stoppage time. Reid's goal came 28 years to the day New Zealand last scored at a World Cup.

New Zealand earned its first World Cup point.

Smeltz found Reid for the tying goal as New Zealand hoped for another result against Italy in Nelspruit. When both nations met in 2009, the attendance for their game reached 10,000 people. In 2010, that figure for the World Cup match would reach 38,229.

Another Remarkable Story Unfolding Here

Shane Smeltz (9) celebrates with captain Ryan Nelsen after Smeltz scored against Italy in a World Cup match in Nelspruit, South Africa.
Shane Smeltz (9) celebrates with captain Ryan Nelsen after Smeltz scored against Italy in a World Cup match in Nelspruit, South Africa. | Source

Miracle at Nelspruit

Before the tournament, Italy were the reigning World Cup champions and were ranked fifth in the world, compared to New Zealand at 78th. Italy fielded several players with over 100 caps, including Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso.

New Zealand had 25 professional players; while some players were playing for Wellington Phoenix in Australia's A-League, most players began their football odyssies in the United States at collegiate and professional levels, including Ryan Nelsen and Tony Lochhead. New Zealand's most-capped player, Vicelich played for semi-professional club Auckland City. New Zealand's second most-capped player on the squad was Simon Elliot; an MLS champion with Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002, Elliot had no club affiliation after San Jose Earthquakes waived him. On the other end of the spectrum, Aaron Clapham had zero caps before the tournament, but reached the final 23-man roster thanks to an impressive training camp. Reid was New Zealand's only European-based player, having played in FC Midtjylland.

Finally, Andy Barron, having appeared during New Zealand's second leg against Bahrain, worked full time as an investment banker.

A game many predicted to be lopsided began with New Zealand capitalizing on a gamble in which Herbert started Nelsen, Killen, and Fallon. Elliot curled his free kick into the penalty area when a slight Cannavaro bobble allowed Smeltz to poke in the goal. Replays looked as if Smeltz was offside, but Smeltz was not interfering with the play; the pass went off Cannavaro's arm, and Smeltz took advantage. It happened to be one of three shots New Zealand had in the game.

New Zealand led for the first time in a World Cup.

Riccardo Montolivo had Italy's first chances to score: two minutes after the goal in which Paston made a save and in the 27th minute in which his shot hit the post. On Italy's next possession, Tommy Smith pulled down Daniele De Rossi in the penalty area. Iaquinta converted the ensuing penalty kick. Italy wanted to spare its blushes, but attempts from De Rossi and Domenico Criscito went wide. Paston saved another De Rossi attempt near the end of the first half, and New Zealand was level with Italy.

Italy used two substitutions to start the second half, with one nearly creating a goal. Antonio Di Natale had his shot saved by Paston in the 49th minute. New Zealand began with an offensive gamble, but this game came down to defense. Italy had 15 corners, compared to New Zealand's zero. Montolivo had another opportunity in the 70th minute, only for Paston to save his long-range shot.

Despite playing defensively throughout the second half, New Zealand did have one chance to score; it nearly paid off. He was New Zealand's only teenager on the 23-man squad, but Chris Wood had been able to get a move on Cannavaro before missing his shot just wide right. Italy continued to press offensively, and Mauro Camoranesi would try his luck against Paston; he too had his attempt saved. As the match approached full time, New Zealand made its third substitution when Barron replaced Killen.

Barron was the tournament's only amateur player to play in the World Cup and his entry became a feel-good story. New Zealand's draw with Italy became an even bigger shock.

Now, New Zealand stood on the precipice of the knockout stage at the World Cup.

The starting lineup for New Zealand in Polokwane, South Africa. Top row: Chris Killen, Winston Reid, Mark Paston, Tommy Smith, Rory Fallon, Tony Lochhead, Simon Elliott; bottom row: Ryan Nelsen (C), Ivan Vicelich, Leo Bertos and Shane Smeltz.
The starting lineup for New Zealand in Polokwane, South Africa. Top row: Chris Killen, Winston Reid, Mark Paston, Tommy Smith, Rory Fallon, Tony Lochhead, Simon Elliott; bottom row: Ryan Nelsen (C), Ivan Vicelich, Leo Bertos and Shane Smeltz. | Source

So Close, yet So Proud

New Zealand had something to play against Paraguay in Polokwane, and a victory would send New Zealand to the knockout stage. A win plus an Italy-Slovakia draw and New Zealand would win Group F. Few chances came for both nations in the first half. For New Zealand, the knockout stages seemed to be in reach as the second half began.

In the 48th minute, Elliott missed an attempt past the corner of the goal. Paston stopped four attempts, including two attempts from forward Roque Santa Cruz. Paston kept New Zealand in contention, but the offense was running out of chances. Bad news came for Nelsen as his second yellow card in as many games meant Nelsen would not be eligible for New Zealand's next match if it advanced. Then in the 86th minute, Wood was unable to connect on a pass while sliding in the penalty box.

New Zealand only managed a scoreless draw; the result saw the nation joined Scotland, Cameroon, and Belgium (1974, 1982 and 1998 respectively) to suffer a first round exit despite going unbeaten. New Zealand set tournament lows with only 15 shots, and its 663 passes were six fewer passes than what Spain's midfielder Xavi had during the 2010 World Cup.

However, New Zealand was the only undefeated nation at the tournament. Herbert resurrected New Zealand from obscurity to fame as the country rose 24 places to be ranked 54th in July 2010.

A lot has changed for New Zealand since 2010, and its "Kiwi Miracle" in South Africa established a precedent to many emerging countries for whom just making it to the World Cup is bigger than an exciting month every four years.

Dreaming the Impossible Dream

© 2014 Antonio Martinez

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