The All Whites booked their place in next year's football World Cup finals - and New Zealand sporting history - with a dramatic 1-0 win over Bahrain in Wellington last night.

A passionate, sellout 35,500 crowd at the Cake Tin saw Rory Fallon's header and Mark Paston's penalty save give Ricki Herbert's team a spot at the world's biggest sporting event for only the second time - and the first since 1982.

The final whistle sparked scenes of incredible celebration as the capital got ready to party. Police and stewards had to hold back jubilant fans as the All Whites embarked on a lap of honour.

Herbert, who played in the 1982 team, said his team had "given it everything, four years of total commitment".

"We did a little bit of homework and really pulled it out of the top drawer," he said. '

"We thought we'd go through without conceding a goal, we thought one would do it. It's just so emotional."

Fallon, whose father Kevin was an assistant coach during the 1982 campaign, gave a succinct summary of his all-important goal: "Them ones I don't miss."

Paston said facing the penalty that would have ended All White hopes was "a bit surreal".

"I basically guessed which way and it ended up in my hands - it was great."

Team captain Ryan Nelsen, who plays for Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, paid tribute to the Wellington supporters. "I've played in some incredible atmospheres in my time but this is right up there. It's been brilliant."

Prime Minister John Key was quick to send the team a message of congratulations from the Apec summit in Singapore.

"This is the chance we have been waiting more than 20 years for," he said. "It is a credit to Ryan Nelsen and his team that tonight they have rekindled New Zealand's passion for the Beautiful Game.

"Enjoy your well-deserved victory - we are all celebrating with you."

Victory gives the national side - who, in contrast to the All Blacks, are minnows in their code - the chance to compete against the superstars of the global game, and a multi-million-dollar payout.

The side earned an estimated $10 million for qualifying for the month-long tournament in South Africa next June and July, with the players netting a 40 per cent share.

New Zealand became the 23rd side to book a place in South Africa, joining the likes of Brazil, England, Spain, Germany, Argentina and Italy, whose teams are littered with some of the biggest stars in the game - including David Beckham, Fernando Torres and Ronaldinho.

It was the first time New Zealand has reached the finals since the epic qualifying campaign of John Adshead's 1982 side.

But there was huge pressure on the All Whites in the winner-takes-all encounter.

After winning a preliminary qualifying tournament in the Oceania region, they earned a two-leg, home-and-away match against Bahrain.

The first leg, in Manama last month, ended 0-0 putting the All Whites into a must-win position last night.

Many of those in Wellington who didn't have a ticket to the game watched on a big screen put up for the occasion at Queen's Wharf or grabbed a spot at one of the busy bars that line Courtenay Place.

Alex O'Connor, manager of The Establishment, said the atmosphere on the strip was upbeat from early in the day.

He was expecting revenue to be double that of a normal Saturday and had brought in four extra bartenders for the night.

"It'll be packed," he said. "People save up money to spend on a big night like this. We're expecting a busier night than a typical New Year's Eve."

Sports shops did a roaring trade in official All Whites jerseys and white boilersuits provided an an excellent alternative - hardware stores across the city had sold out of them by the afternoon.

Bahrainian fans were out in force too, girls in hijabs carrying Go Bahrain signs and cars with Bahrain flags flying out the windows in the stiff northerly breeze.

All Whites fan Rafael Furtado warmed up for the game with a few beers before making his way to the stadium with a bunch of friends. "I'm very excited," said the 25-year-old student. "The capital has been building up to this match."

The capital was expected to reap a $7m windfall from last night's match, with an estimated 15,000 visitors among the crowd.

World Cup facts
* New Zealand has made it to the World Cup once - 1982, in Spain. It lost every game and was eliminated in the first round.

* In qualifying rounds for that tournament, the All Whites set a record for the biggest score in a World Cup qualifier when they thrashed Fiji 13-0.

* More than 200 nations tried to qualify for the 2010 finals. The process starting in August 2007.

* 32 teams will compete at the finals which will take place in South Africa from June 11 to July 11.

* The first World Cup took place in 1930 and was won by host nation Uruguay.

* An estimated 715.1 million people watched the 2006 Fifa World Cup final.

* Seven nations have won the title and Brazil is the most successful. The current holder is Italy.