The first All Whites to return home from the World Cup were mobbed by thrilled supporters at Auckland Airport yesterday - as the team get set to enter the soccer world's top 50.
Schoolboys holding a home-made banner declaring "Well done All Whites" chanted "All Whites, All Whites" during an hour's wait to see their heroes.
They were joined by 250 other cheering voices when three players and members of the team management finally emerged.
The contingent were mobbed by youngsters and wellwishers and Auckland City Football Club supporters in a flurry of high-fives, hand shakes, hearty slaps and requests for autographs on footballs and team photos.
Bearing the brunt of attention was star midfielder Ivan Vicelich, of Auckland, who played all three games in the tournament.
Hugging wife Marisa and 2-year-old son Luka, who was wearing a mini Daddy 5 jersey, Vicelich said playing in the tournament was "a dream come true".
Vice-captain Tim Brown and All White Ben Sigmund, who play for the Phoenix, also mingled with the crowd before heading off to Wellington.
More of the team will return throughout the week and coach Ricki Herbert will be home on Friday.
Earlier, fans packed the airport public viewing platform to see the team's plane land. Two fire trucks created a water arch over the Emirates jet as it taxied to a gate - an honour usually reserved for dignitaries, Olympic teams and inaugural flights.
Vicelich said the team's undefeated run at the Cup, including a draw against world champions Italy, "proves to the rest of the world that we are good enough to be at the World Cup and deserve to be there".
When the All Whites arrived in South Africa, they were ranked 30th of the 32 teams at the finals. Only North Korea (105th on Fifa's rankings) and the hosts were rated below New Zealand (78).
But with three proud draws and two goals to their name, the All Whites departed the tournament with the 22nd best record of the 32 competing nations.
Ricki Herbert's men could jump as high as the top 50 when Fifa's new rankings are released. Depending on final calculations, they could surpass this country's highest-ever ranking of 47 (in August 2002).
The surge will continue the steady improvement since 2006, when the last World Cup was taken into account.
Including the disastrous Oceania Cup showing in Adelaide, the All Whites dropped to 131st.
With results in the lead-up "friendlies" also to be taken into account after the 2010 Cup, NZ are poised to be one of the biggest movers.
They will at least be headed in the right direction, unlike fifth-ranked Italy, who were 26th of the 32 teams after the group stage in South Africa, and ninth-ranked France, who had only Cameroon (19) and North Korea (105) below them when the final whistle blew on the first round.
Vicelich said his comeback to international football 18 months ago gave him the enjoyment of playing again with the All Whites and at the World Cup. "It's a dream come true ... Some great players never get to it."
Asked about the speculation that some of his teammates, notably Winston Reid and Tommy Smith, were being sought by overseas clubs, he said: "I'm hoping that these guys will get picked up by bigger clubs and head over to Europe. The more players we get there, the better New Zealand's game is going to be."
Coach Ricki Herbert, whose $50,000 contract with the All Whites ended with the match against Paraguay, has also been tipped for overseas jobs.
Asked what he thought the coach would do, Vicelich said: "I don't know. He's on Cloud Nine at the moment. Let him enjoy it."
Vicelich said he hoped the tournament was for the good of not only NZ football but for the nation's sport.
Asked whether he had any "what if?" feelings had the Paraguay game been won, he said: "There's a feeling of disappointment. We were one goal away from playing against, I think it was Japan, in the next round ... Who knows what would have happened? But football is a beautiful game with its ups and downs."
And his pick for the final? "Argentina have to be the favourites."
2010: Top 50By Terry Maddaford Email Terry, Wayne Thompson Email Wayne