Michael Brown at the World Cup
Michael Brown blogs from the Fifa World Cup

Soccer: All Whites hold on for stunning draw

By Michael Brown in Nelspruit

All Whites 1 Italy 1

All Whites players celebrate Shane Smeltz’ goal during the World Cup group match against Italy in Nelspruit. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Whites players celebrate Shane Smeltz’ goal during the World Cup group match against Italy in Nelspruit. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Take a look at the points table. Look again. Sitting in second, equal with Italy, are New Zealand.

Little, old New Zealand with just 25 professional footballers - Italy has 3541. A country which had played just four World Cup matches before this morning drew with one which has won four World Cup titles. Crazy.

If the Slovakia result was incredible, this is truly mind-blowing and they still have a genuine chance of progressing to the second round - although Paraguay looked slick in their 2-0 defeat of Slovakia. That would be one of the biggest surprises in World Cup history, much like the US beating England in 1950.

If they did that, the whole team should be knighted. At least coach Ricki Herbert and captain Ryan Nelsen.

"How many times do I have to say it? These boys just keep responding and they've done it again tonight," Herbert said immediately after the game.

"It's the most incredible result we've had across the board. As a football coach, it's way above anything we've achieved in the history of the game.

"We are always daring to dream. At the World Cup anything is possible - we've seen some strange results - but nothing as big as that one."

Prime Minister John Key attended the match at Nelspruit and said the country could take great pride in the miraculous result.

"It was just sensational - my heart was racing for the last 30 minutes, it was just an incredible atmosphere," Key said.

"They just played with guts the whole way didn't they? They had so much courage, it was just incredible,"

The really crazy thing is, New Zealand could have beaten Italy. Yes, they were under immense pressure for most of the game, but the goal they conceded, a 29th minute Vincenzo Iaquinta penalty, was extremely soft.

Midfielder Daniele Di Rossi, all 85kg of snarling Italian cabanossi, went down like he had been tackled by All Black Ma'a Nonu.

All Whites defender Tommy Smith naively tugged his shirt, but this happens virtually any time a ball is played into the box, and Di Rossi fell like his legs had been taken from under him. He was clearly looking for a penalty and the referee duly obliged.

In fact, the referee obliged most times the Italians wanted a free-kick, much to the frustration of All Whites kipper Ryan Nelsen.

"Obviously the referee didn't help us," Nelsen said. "I think he got stars in his eyes. If he's the best that Fifa offer up then, gee whizz, I would hate to see the worst. It was very sad to see. He ruined the game.

"Every ball we put forward, he blew the whistle before there was even contact.

"The ref got stars in his eyes. Absolutely saw stars. That's what New Zealand has to go up against. If they make a bad mistake against us, no one really says anything but if they make it against Italy the whole world complains. He just got stars in his eyes."

Italy went down clutching anything if they tangled with Rory Fallon, clearly looking to diffuse the tall striker's effectiveness. Fallon has a tendency to go up with his arms, which invites inspection, but the Guatemalan referee bought everything.

It totally negated Fallon's, and New Zealand's game in the first half. They need to bring a physicality to the match along with their aerial ability and when both are refereed out of the match they have little left.

In some respects, the penalty might have evened things up because there was an element of controversy to New Zealand's goal.

The All Whites had taken an unlikely seventh-minute lead through Smeltz when he stabbed home from close range. The two-time A-League golden boot winner looked to be offside but only if Winston Reid flicked Simon Elliott's free-kick on and replays weren't conclusive.

Regardless, it stunned the healthy crowd at the impressive Mbombela Stadium and for a second - maybe four - New Zealand fans could be heard over the drone of the vuvuzelas.

It just spurred Italy into action. They were wounded. They don't lose to teams ranked 73 places behind them.

They attacked down New Zealand's left, floating balls in behind Tony Lochhead, and peppered Mark Paston's goal. He slapped away one free-kick and watched a swerving Riccardo Montolivo effort from 35 yards cannon off his upright.

The All Whites had little possession but they battled manfully. This is a resilient New Zealand side who quite enjoy making history.

The All Whites were much better in the second spell and soaked up tremendous pressure. They enjoyed decent periods of possession and Ivan Vicelich smacked one volley narrowly wide and Chris Wood saw his shot shave the upright.

Paston brilliantly saved another Montolivo screamer and the defence was constantly scrambling, but they kept Italy at bay. Ryan Nelsen was once again brilliant in defence and Simon Elliott, all 36 years of him, was a study of control in the centre of the park.

In fact, they were all brilliant, because this was a brilliant result. Remember this day, and keep the points table. History is a wonderful thing.

- with NZ Herald staff

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