Soccer: All Whites' dream World Cup draw

Everyone wanted New Zealand. Some wouldn't admit it, playing the politically correct game, but others, like France and the Netherlands, couldn't hide their delight at the prospect.

As the balls were drawn out by Springboks captain John Smit and champion athlete Haile Gebrselassie at the lavish World Cup draw in Cape Town yesterday morning, Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia were the lucky ones.

In truth, however, fortune also favoured New Zealand. There are no easy games for a country ranked 77 in the world but they got about as good a draw as they could have hoped.

The All Whites were always going to draw a big gun - the top eight seeds are all separated - and they found themselves grouped with defending champions Italy. But they avoided a number of the dangerous floaters everyone wanted to avoid like Portugal, France, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. Spare a thought for North Korea, a team ranked seven places below the All Whites and playing at their first World Cup since 1966. They will tackle five-time champions Brazil, the fifth-ranked Portuguese, who were 2004 European runners-up and third in Germany four years ago, and a powerful Ivory Coast side with the likes of Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure.

Australia also have cause to grumble, having been grouped with three-time champions Germany, Serbia and Ghana.

"We have got to be reasonably pleased," admitted All Whites coach Ricki Herbert. "You can never say that any game for us is going to be easy at a World Cup but it's not too bad. It could have been worse, it could have been better.

"I'm just pleased it's done. We are off to a World Cup. It's brilliant. I can't wait. It was so exciting seeing all of the names come out."

It's the first time in 28 years New Zealand was among those names. It's hoped it won't take another 28 years but a lot of that rests with Fifa. The world body seems certain to change Oceania's qualification process next time around to make it infinitely more difficult than the path Herbert's side took to South Africa. They will go to the Republic as the rankest of rank outsiders and it would be a miracle if they progressed to the second round but the draw has given them a chance of being competitive.

"We would love to get out of our group, absolutely," Herbert said. "The minimum goal is to be competitive. The rankings show that's going to be difficult given our place in the world. But we have to do better than we have done before. We have showed that we are improving and are taking steps forward. We have to keep that going."

The All Whites will open their campaign against Slovakia in Rustenburg on June 16 (NZT), the same venue where they played their first two matches at June's Confederations Cup, before taking on Italy in Nelspruit on June 21 and Paraguay in Polokwane on June 25. All three games will be played at altitude on the high veldt, which will influence New Zealand's buildup. Herbert hopes to play six friendlies between now and the World Cup, with a plan to take the majority of the squad to Europe for a couple of weeks before venturing to South Africa two weeks before the start of the tournament to acclimatise. Much of that will rest with New Zealand Football chairman Frank Van Hattum and All Whites assistant Brian Turner, who were both in Cape Town and who were charged with securing warmups and accommodation.

Italy will no doubt be one of the two sides to progress from Group F and will be one of the tournament favourites. The four-time winners and defending champions rarely look like world beaters but went through qualifying unbeaten. They are unlikely to be as generous as they were in their 4-3 defeat of New Zealand in a friendly before June's Confederations Cup, when they had to come from behind three times to escape embarrassment.

Paraguay and Slovakia are relative unknowns in this country but this is based more on ignorance than anything else and will be strong opponents.

Paraguay will play at their fourth consecutive World Cup and eighth overall and recently completed their most successful qualifying campaign finishing behind Chile and Brazil but ahead of Argentina.

Slovakia will play at their first World Cup since splitting from Czechoslovakia in 1993.

South Africa will play Mexico in the opening game of the tournament in Johannesburg on June 12 (NZT) with the final to be played at the same venue on July 12 (NZT). New Zealand won't be playing in that match but they will at least be playing at the World Cup. And that is something to celebrate.

NZ v Slovakia

Rustenburg, 11.30pm Tuesday, June 16

The skinny: This will be the first time Slovakia has played at a World Cup but Czechoslovakia, who they separated from in 1993, played in eight tournaments overall and even reached the final in 1934 (lost 2-1 to Italy) and 1962 (lost to Brazil 3-1). They made the last eight in 1990.

How they qualified: Slovakia topped their group ahead of Slovenia (who qualified courtesy of a playoff win over Russia) and Poland. They needed to win their final match to get their boarding pass to South Africa and delivered with a 1-0 win in Poland.

Players to watch: Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel is Slovakia's best-known player but the rest are a commentator's nightmare. Marek Hamsik has a good record with Napoli in Italy's Serie A and striker Stanislav Sestak scored six goals in qualifying.

Head to head: Never played before.

Coachspeak: "I don't really know much about Slovakia but we have six months now to find out."
Ricki Herbert

"Everybody wanted Slovakia or New Zealand before the draw, and the funny thing is that we are now together in the same group. But I believe it will be hard for everyone, it is the World Cup after all. I actually think this is a good group and it is fantastic for us to be here in this tournament."
Vladimir Weiss, Slovakia coach

NZ's chances: 2/5

NZ v Italy

Nelspruit, 4am Monday, June 21

The skinny: The Azzuri head to South Africa as defending champions and trail only Brazil as the most successful nation in World Cup history (1934, 38, 82, 2006). Italian people might be expressive but you could hardly say that about the football team, who often squeeze the life out of the opposition. Will be one of the favourites again for the title.

How they qualified: Italy adopted their typically pragmatic approach and easily qualified thanks to sevens wins and three draws (18 goals for, seven against), finishing well ahead of Ireland and Bulgaria.

Players to watch: All of them but there are few better than Andrea Pirlo. The midfielder looks like a Morris Minor surrounded by Ferraris but he pulls the strings in what seems an effortless fashion. Gianluigi Buffon is brilliant in goal, 2006 World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro is sound at the back and Gennaro Gattuso is the pitbull in midfield.

Head to head: Never played a competitive match. New Zealand scared Italy in a friendly in June, three times taking the lead before succumbing 4-3.

Coach speak: "The quality of Italy speaks for itself - they are defending world champions,"
Ricki Herbert

"None of the teams are easy. We will have to study them all very closely. In my opinion, there is no such thing as an easy or hard group - in all cases, Italy has to win. New Zealand is definitely not a lucky draw."
Marcello Lippi, Italy coach

NZ's chances: 0.5/5

NZ v Paraguay

Polokwane, 4am Thursday, June 25

The skinny: Paraguay will be playing at the World Cup finals for the fourth consecutive time and eighth overall. They made the last 16 in 1998 and 2002 and will be confident after an impressive qualifying campaign.

How they qualified: La Albirroja finished third in South America behind Chile and Brazil but ahead of Argentina, recording 10 wins (the most in the group along with Chile), three draws and five defeats. It was their best qualifying campaign under the present format.

Players to watch: The South Americans are traditionally sound defensively but they now have strength up front in the likes of Roque Santa Cruz (Man City) Salvador Cabanas and Nelson Haedo Valdez. The latter two scored 11 goals between them in qualifying.

Head to head: New Zealand suffered a 3-2 loss to Paraguay at a tournament in Chile in 1995.

Coachspeak: "I don't know a lot about Paraguay but they were strong in qualifying, finishing ahead of Argentina."
Ricki Herbert

"We have some of the best players in the world. New Zealand are not an easy team in my view, any competition is still competition."
Gerardo Martino, Paraguay coach

NZ's chances: 2/5


- Herald on Sunday

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