Soccer: The gift that kept on giving

New Zealand's Shane Smeltz celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2010 World Cup group F soccer match between Italy and New Zealand at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa. Photo / AP
New Zealand's Shane Smeltz celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2010 World Cup group F soccer match between Italy and New Zealand at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa. Photo / AP

In one section of the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, Prime Minister John Key high fives someone close to him before embracing Fifa president Sepp Blatter. The latter shakes his head in disbelief. So does Key. Later, the Kiwi decked out in a No 10 All Whites shirt talks about how this night is on a par with the one when he was elected Prime Minister.

Elsewhere, All Whites fans dance wildly - waving their shirts above their head. They stick around for more than an hour, often celebrating with players who come out to acknowledge their support, before they are "moved along" by overly physical police, presumably keen to get home to watch the next game on TV.

In bars from London to New York and Auckland to Invercargill, delirious Kiwis celebrate like New Zealand have just won the World Cup. In cafes and bars around Italy, they react in disbelief and anger. It's not supposed to be this way.

In the stadium's press box, an English television commentator sums it up succinctly.

"The All Whites are all right on the night," he says as the final whistle blows and the New Zealand players embrace. "One of the great results in World Cup history. Absolutely, astonishingly, they have taken a point from the world champions, Italy."

Further along, I furiously tap out what it means for New Zealand football. Deadline is in two minutes. This is no ordinary match report. "Take a look at the points table," I write. "Look again. Sitting in second, equal with Italy, are New Zealand.

Little, old New Zealand with just 25 professional football players - 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."

It was crazy. The whole World Cup ride was crazy, from the moment the All Whites defeated Bahrain in Wellington last November.

Qualifying for a second World Cup was one thing but no one, absolutely no one, predicted New Zealand would go through the tournament undefeated and finish ahead of Italy in their group. That's like saying Tonga will top the All Blacks at next year's Rugby World Cup.

It has not always been easy being a football writer in this country. It might be the world game but it is not New Zealand's.

For three weeks, however, Kiwis embraced the code like virtually every other country does.

It can't last - it doesn't last - but it was a fantastic ride nonetheless.

All of a sudden knowing whether Winston Reid has a girlfriend; whether Ryan Nelsen might miss a game because "nothing on Earth" would see him miss the birth of his second child; and whether Tim Brown's shoulder came through training became big news.

It's hard to see 2010 being topped in New Zealand football history, certainly not in my life time.

Success will be measured by what is achieved at a World Cup and it will be a lot more difficult for the All Whites next time around - assuming there is a next time. There are no guarantees they will qualify for Brazil in 2014 and, if they do, expectations will demand a repeat performance; or at least something meritorious.

It's what happened in Australia. They were one of the success stories of the 2006 World Cup, when they were eliminated controversially by eventual champions Italy in the second round. But they were ousted at the group stage in South Africa. They might have won one game and drawn another to finish with a point more than the All Whites but their 4-0 defeat to Germany meant they failed to progress and the country was largely unimpressed.

Very little went wrong for New Zealand football in 2010. The year could really be traced back to November 14, 2009, when the All Whites beat Bahrain 1-0 in Wellington to qualify for South Africa.

The entire footballing landscape changed that night. It gave something to look forward to and encouraged talented youngsters like Winston Reid and Tommy Smith to commit to New Zealand.

Suddenly kids in the playground wanted to be Mark Paston or Ryan Nelsen as much as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. There are hopes this enthusiasm, as well as the Whole of Football plan that will be rolled out next year, will produce a new breed of All Whites.

Almost as importantly, New Zealand Football can now look at their bank account without cringing. Not long ago, they went to the Government with the begging bowl.

Now they can host the feast after collecting the majority share of a $10 million windfall from Fifa.

World Cup qualification also gave the Wellington Phoenix impetus. They might have qualified for the A-League playoffs for the first time anyway but the All Whites' playoffs with Bahrain coincided with a terrific run that took them to the verge of the grand final. It got players excited and that translated into public excitement.

Incredibly, 32,792 turned out for Wellington's 3-1 semifinal win over Newcastle at the Cake Tin. One man was a constant throughout this. Ricki Herbert might be going through a difficult time with his Phoenix side but he has achieved unparalleled success in New Zealand football.

It has been recognised overseas perhaps more than here. He had offers to coach overseas and was in talks to join the coaching staff at West Ham but turned them down to recommit to New Zealand.

Herbert won many admirers. He was judged by the UK's top-selling FourFourTwo magazine as their manager of the World Cup and last week readers of World Soccer magazine voted him as the ninth-best manager of the year behind the likes of Jose Mourinho (Inter, Real Madrid), Vicente Del Bosque (Spain), Joachim Low (Germany) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona).

Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson didn't feature.

The senior women continued on their upward trend and registered a notable win over Italy and draws with England, the Netherlands and South Korea before qualifying for next year's World Cup.

There were disappointments in 2010. The failure of Auckland City or Waitakere United to qualify for the Club World Cup, especially after Auckland's success the previous year, was lamentable, as has been the Phoenix's struggles this season. It was up to the Phoenix to continue interest in football - there really is no one else - and they have so far failed as they struggled to find some form.

The Junior Football Ferns (under- 20s) and Young Football Ferns (under-17s) both lost all their games at their respective World Cups, failing to meet expectations.

But 2010 will still enter football folklore. At last we can stop talking about 1982 in such reverential tones.

It's not that we should forget what the 1982 All Whites achieved in qualifying for the World Cup in Spain but it's time to move on, in the same way England needs to move on from 1966.

Hopefully future All Whites teams will give us reasons to move on from 2010.

- Herald on Sunday

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