Soccer: All Whites grab elusive point against Iraq

By Michael Brown in Johannesburg

All Whites 0 Iraq 0

Never before has the scoreline 0-0 looked so good.

With that, the All Whites created history by becoming the first New Zealand men's team to claim a point at a Fifa tournament.

Sometimes nil-nils can be lucky, backs to the wall stuff. Not this. The All Whites were good for it and they can now return from South Africa satisfied they have done something their predecessors failed to do.

If there was one criticism, and it could be seen as a little churlish, is that they didn't win. They could have led by 2-0 at halftime in a dominant display and were then content in the final stages to sit on the draw.

It didn't seem to matter because the arms went into the air and the hugs were on offer all round when English referee Howard Webb blew his whistle for full time.

It was also met with rapturous applause from the crowd of 23,295 because it means the home side, Bafana Bafana, move through to the second round.

New Zealand still finished last in their group and with a goal difference of minus seven. But it is the 1 standing at the end of the column that will bring the most satisfaction.

It will give this side great confidence for what lies ahead. In just four months, they take on either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain for a place at next year's World Cup and Iraq are said to play a similar style to their Middle Eastern counterparts.

You could sense early this was going to be different from the opening two matches.

Iraq needed to win to have any chance of progressing but looked like they didn't have the appetite for it. They were intimidated by the All Whites, playing in their more threatening all black strip, and didn't want to make a tackle. They also complained of New Zealand's supposedly rough-house tactics.

It was nothing of the sort but it was a much-needed step up in intensity from their opening two matches, when they limply folded to both Spain and South Africa.

It allowed the All Whites to play. It allowed them to dominate the midfield and sit on the ball and it allowed them to take players on.

For the first time in the tournament the likes of Leo Bertos attacked his man on and got to the byline.

The All Whites should have been ahead by halftime. On another day, Chris Killen would have had a hat-trick. He blasted a shot from the penalty spot well wide of the upright, headed another low to the keeper and, the best chance of all, skied a header from a corner from only seven yards out.

Killen was right to bury his head in his shirt. He should have buried something else in the back of the net.

But the signs were good for the All Whites. They were largely untroubled at the back, except for a fine Glen Moss save in the 10th minute when Younis Mahmoud was clear on goal, and went to the break in a buoyant mood.

It's not an emotion they've felt since Fernando Torres blitzed them with a hat-tick inside 17 minutes in their opening game of the Confederations Cup.

Herbert had made three changes to his starting lineup and they were all positive.

Ben Sigmund came in for Andy Boyens and added some mongrel to the backline, Aaron Scott came in for the out-of-sorts David Mulligan at right-back and Jeremy Brockie started at right midfield for Jeremy Christie.

He had signalled that Mark Paston would start in goal for Glen Moss, because of the four-match ban hanging over Moss which will keep him out of the World Cup playoffs, but figured history was more important.

Moss was again brilliant and he will be sorely missed in the playoffs and Scott did everything asked of him at the back before he limped off with a knee injury in the 85th minute.

Iraq were infinitely better in the second spell. Whatever coach Bora Milutinovic said in his Serbian accent clearly resonated with the players.

They had more of the possession, played short and quick passes and looked much more threatening.

It translated into the All Whites looking nervy. They lost their rhythm, balls went astray and they often kicked long to relieve some pressure.

But they stayed resolute and Shane Smeltz had the chance to score the winner three minutes from time when he was alone in the box only for him to scuff his shot.

It would have capped off an historic night. Few in South Africa will understand just how much this means too New Zealand football. Credibility is not always a companion but it was achieved this morning.

After the euphoria had died down a little, Herbert and his assistant Brian Turner wandered to the centre circle to share a quiet moment.

There were likely to be a few louder ones back at the team hotel. And who could blame them?

New Zealand 0 Iraq 0. Halftime: 0-0.

Michael Brown is in South Africa courtesy of Emirates, official airline of the 2010 World Cup.

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