Editorial: All Whites' heart a quality you can't fake

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To a degree, Fallon's physical approach was always going to attract attention in the rarified air of international soccer. Photo / Brett Phibbs
To a degree, Fallon's physical approach was always going to attract attention in the rarified air of international soccer. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Hats off to Ryan Nelsen, the captain of the New Zealand soccer team.

Not only for the way he marshalled his side as the All Whites claimed a hugely significant 1-1 World Cup draw against Italy, the reigning world champion, but for his straight talking after the match.

Sport is replete with players who utter only polite noises. Nelsen told it like it was. Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres, who awarded the softest of penalties to the Italians, had had "stars in his eyes" and his partiality had ruined the game.

"If he's the best that Fifa offer up then, gee whizz, I would hate to see the worst," Nelsen said.

Italy escaped with a draw after All Whites defender Tommy Smith applied the lightest of tugs to Daniele Di Rossi's shirt. Such behaviour usually goes unpunished even when, as in this instance, a player makes the most of it with a theatrical dive.

This prompted Nelsen to say that soccer's governing body had to "look at guys who are faking or conning the referee".

His cry is not a new one, of course, but, as Nelsen agreed, soccer could at least introduce some belated redress by mimicking rugby and using a citing commissioner to penalise offences not dealt with on the pitch.

Italy are, of course, past masters of the art of "simulation". The Australians learned that to their considerable cost at the last World Cup. The cynicism that the Italians brought to the match against New Zealand also saw them clutching their faces after contesting headers with Rory Fallon.

The millionaires' message to the star-struck referee was clear, and the All Whites striker, a key weapon in the New Zealand arsenal, had to be withdrawn from the contest in the 63rd minute.

To a degree, Fallon's physical approach was always going to attract attention in the rarified air of international soccer. Perhaps he should have adapted better to the Italians' approach. To expect anything else would have been naive.

Similarly, the New Zealand defenders would have known the Italians would milk every brush of bodies. But Nelsen aside, this campaign is a learning experience for the likes of Smith and Winston Reid. Impetuosity will sometimes get the better of them, not always with the desired result.

Nothing, however, can detract from the All Whites' amazing performance. The last-gasp 1-1 draw against Slovakia, after a tepid second-half display, had left some questions unanswered. Now there can be no argument. This collection of players has earned a place among those in the highest reaches of the New Zealand sporting pantheon.

Astonishingly, the All Whites go into their third and final pool match against Paraguay on Friday with a chance of qualifying for a place in the knockout stages. Rarely have expectations been so comprehensively exceeded.

It is reasonable to note that Italy, like several of the leading teams at this World Cup, was lacklustre. Absent was a midfield spark that would have subjected the New Zealand goal to concerted pressure from close range.

Absent also was the leak-proof defence that Italy normally employs to eliminate goals such as that scored by Shane Smeltz. But those deficiencies also say much about the All White defenders' refusal to be pulled out of position in the second half. And about a willingness to compete that has made New Zealand's long-ball style difficult to fully combat, even at this level.

Paraguay appears to be the best team in the All Whites' pool. While many other countries have struggled, it had confirmed its standing as the second-best qualifier from South America.

If New Zealand is to advance to the knockout stage, probably nothing less than a victory will suffice. The odds will, once again, strongly favour its opponent. But who would now bet against the All Whites?

- NZ Herald

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