For half an hour it seemed as though this morning's World Cup game might become known as the Miracle of Mbombela.

It ended in a 1-1 draw, a fabulous effort by Ryan Nelsen and his men.

A seventh-minute Shane Smeltz goal had the lowly All Whites leading the World Cup holders Italy at Nelspruit, near Johannesburg.

The absolutely impossible suddenly became a maybe, as Ricki Herbert's aerial bombers rattled Italy in the group match.

Some even dreamed of reading the words: "New Zealand beat Italy in soccer's World Cup".

What a pulsating match, one of the tournament's best.

The All Whites did themselves and the country extremely proud, harassing the dominant Italians, hurling bodies into the battle, and even threatening now and then, including via a late Chris Wood strike.

The All Whites will still battle to survive into the knockout stage, after Paraguay - their dangerous final group opponents - beat Slovakia 2-0.

Italy will be strongly favoured to beat Slovakia, that game also being played on Friday (NZT). New Zealand will probably have to beat Paraguay at Polokwane.

This morning's game was in line to go down alongside massive upsets such as the United States' win over England in 1950, or North Korea's triumph over Italy in 1966.

You only had to track the match photographers to know this was a lopsided battle.

The All Whites' bench was virtually ignored before the game, and let's face it, some of the people on that bench are virtually ignored by their own club coaches.

Meanwhile, lenses were trained on Italian coach Marcello Lippi as the crowd waited for the players to take the pitch.

What a stirring, magnificent opening it proved to be at the perfect 41,000 seater Mbombela Stadium.

An early All Whites goal was exactly what the game needed.

It duly arrived, Winston Reid providing the disruption to a Simon Elliott fee kick, and Smetlz, who was surely offside, stealing in to jam the ball past Federico Marchetti.

Italy's 28th minute levelling penalty was hotly disputed, but aren't they all.

Tommy Smith tugged at Daniele de Rossi's shirt and de Rossi didn't exactly try to resist gravity.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa does a better job of trying to stay upright, but the penalty may have been justified. Vincenzo Iaquinta nailed the penalty.

But the Italians couldn't break us down and - as in the first match against Slovakia - the plucky All Whites survived wave after wave of attack and came away with a point.