Today marks the tenth anniversary of the All Whites' stunning 1-1 draw with Italy at the 2010 World Cup. It was a standout moment amongst a month of minor miracles. Michael Burgess reveals the untold story of the incredible campaign in South Africa.
Standing in the Mbombela Stadium tunnel, Shane Smeltz wasn't sure where to look. As he lined up with the All Whites for their second match at the 2010 World Cup, the Italians shuffled into view.
There was Fabio Cannavaro, the former World Player of the Year who had lifted the trophy four years earlier. Behind him stood Gianluca Zambrotta, who had played for Juventus, Barcelona and Milan, and Giorgio Chiellini, a veteran of two Champions League finals.
It should have been intimidating but Smeltz was unperturbed by the presence of the legendary Azzurri, the four-time World Cup winners and defending champions.
"We left the pitch after the first game [a 1-1 draw with Slovakia] with such a good feeling and that carried through," says Smeltz. "It was almost a feeling like you have never stood so tall, or had your chest out so proud before. You are going out to play the reigning world champions and it was like 'let's go do this'."
Around two hours later, the All Whites had secured a shock 1-1 draw and Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of the result considered the best in New Zealand football history.
The Italy match was the high point of a heady World Cup campaign in South Africa which saw the All Whites finish as the tournament's only unbeaten team.
Players became celebrities and the nation was smitten, bowled over by football fever that even overshadowed the All Blacks. It was special and unique. Like Peter Snell in Tokyo, Danyon Loader in Atlanta and Chris Lewis at Wimbledon, it feels one of those achievements almost impossible to replicate.
"It will be recognised as a team that changed the nation," says All Whites coach Ricki Herbert. "Going to the World Cup was an outcome for us but we wanted to change the nation. It was a team that really electrified the country and made a lot of those players really popular. That's not easy in our code. They will be thought of as heroes for a long, long time."
New Zealand was the last country to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, after a nerve-shredding 1-0 win over Bahrain on November 14, 2009.
The All Whites arrived in South Africa after an encouraging build-up which encompassed games against Australia and Slovenia, with a 1-0 win over world No 15 Serbia the high point.
But warm-up matches are awkward barometers and judgement day was looming.
First opponents Slovakia were tournament debutants but had players at leading clubs such as Liverpool and Napoli, and had topped a qualifying group that included Poland and the Czech Republic.
They were hardened foes but a clever psychological ploy from Nelsen helped ease tension.
The captain had completed six English Premier League seasons for Blackburn Rovers, while most of his teammates had more modest playing backgrounds.
"Half my job was trying to get the guys to believe we are going to be all right, whether I believed it or not," said Nelsen. "I just had to convince everyone else that we could. Belief is massive. Look at rugby; most games are lost against the All Blacks once the haka is done."
A key moment came the day before the match, when the team's video analyst was profiling their European opponents.
"They were listing the players," says Nelsen. "He plays for Napoli, he's worth 12 million, he's really good on the dribble, he's at West Brom, he's part of the Bundesliga. I was watching the guy's reactions and you could kind of see them going, 'oh shit'.
"When [the staff] left the room, I went through the players again and said, 'I know him, he's shit. I'd rather have you on my team. And you. He's doesn't track, he's got no left foot.' I was trying to put them on that human level."
It seemed to strike a chord.
"Ryan was trying to make a point and did it a few times," says goalkeeper Mark Paston. "Often with Kiwi teams, they go out to play against some pretty big names. He pointed out they're only human, it's still 11 v 11 and don't take a backward step. It definitely worked."
The team were fit and focused, though their first training session in South Africa was abandoned due to smoke from the nearby township in Daveyton.
"They were burning tyres to cook, to keep warm," says former Herald journalist Michael Brown. "It's part of life there but produced this thick, grey smoke and the smell was hideous."
Herbert was confident, though two former national coaches had publicly questioned his surprise choice of veteran Vicelich in midfield.
The first game
On June 15, at 1.30pm on a crisp winter's day, the All Whites took the field at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, 28 years after they had last played at the World Cup.
New Zealand started well, with some early opportunities, although Paston almost fell victim to a Minties moment, with an air swing as he attempted to deal with a back pass.
"I was trying to clear it with my left peg and touched it with my right," says Paston. "It didn't connect very well. I managed to lose a few teeth trying to mop up that mess. I was spitting out my teeth in the middle of the game, but it didn't bother me that much, as I'd got away with the miskick. I was happy to lose some teeth, as long as the guy didn't put it in the net."
The All Whites reached halftime unscathed but Slovakia were gaining momentum, causing problems on both flanks. Five minutes into the second half, they were ahead as Robert Vittek ghosted in behind Winston Reid to volley home.
"I've watched it time and again, and I still think the player is offside," says Herbert. "Given the beauty of lockdown, I've probably watched it 100 times."
It was a blow – provoking a collective sigh in pubs and living rooms around New Zealand – but heads didn't drop on the field.
"The reaction was great," says Herbert. "It was important not to go from one to two, and fall away. We kept coming."
But time ticked on.
Reid, who had joined the team in March after switching allegiance from Denmark to the country of his birth, pushed up.
"I told him to stay forward," says Nelsen. "I was never a `fox in the box', so left him up there."
A long Paston kick was flicked on before being cleared by the Slovakian defence. It fell towards their captain but Smeltz was more desperate and regained possession.
"They turned the ball over in such a silly position," says Nelsen. "If they were playing Brazil and up 1-0, that player smashes it into the corner. He doesn't mess around. We knew they would make mistakes if we were still in the game and it was a phenomenal effort by Smeltzy."
"It was one of those moments; it's now or never," says Smeltz. "I remember the ball popping out, and if you watch it back, it's almost a 60-40 in his favour. But if we didn't win that ball then, it was never getting back into the box."
The No 9 jinked and turned before delivering the "best and most important cross of my life", an arcing diagonal ball into the Slovakian penalty area.
Reid had played his junior football for Takapuna before his mother took the family to Denmark when he was 11. He was quiet and laid-back.
"When we first saw him, we thought, 'gee, this guy doesn't look bothered'," says Paston. "Get the deckchair out. But we soon realised he was an amazing athlete who can just turn it on when he gets on the field."
Others remember him whacking shots from 40m out in training and running "like a gazelle" with a prodigious leap.
Reid hung in the air, then deftly directed home the cross. Cue pandemonium. Players sprinted to the corner – with most of the bench joining them – but were in danger of falling into a 5m-deep empty moat that encircled the field.
"We stormed over to celebrate with Reidy and all nearly fell down into this massive void," says Nelsen. "But it was an awesome feeling. You know you're in the tournament from then on."
"I had no vision – I was just running off with the boys," says Smeltz. "It was only when I got within a metre and thought I could hold myself up and my studs nearly gave way. It was a hell of a drop. It wouldn't have been pretty."
New Zealand had achieved a miraculous finish, and probably the only Kiwi not celebrating was an Auckland punter who had placed $40,000 on a Slovakian win (paying $1.02) in the 87th minute of the match.
'Slice of Heaven' reverberated around the dressing room, while Paston was trying to find an emergency dentist. Slovakian coach Vladimir Weiss had promised to share a post-match beer with Herbert but he disappeared, but not before describing the result as a "minor sporting tragedy for us" in the press conference.
At home, the nation was in raptures, with the Herald's 'What a result' and 'Gooooooooooooooal!!!' typical of headlines around the country.
'Australasia 1 Slovakia 1' was the Sydney Morning Herald's cheeky angle, as Australia reeled from the Socceroos' opening 4-0 defeat to Germany.
Off the field, life was good. The All Whites were accommodated at the sprawling Serengeti golf resort on the fringes of Johannesburg. They shared houses, with family and friends staying in another area of the 280 hectare complex.
"It was amazing," says Nelsen. "I spoke to guys in other teams and they were stuck in hotel rooms, with fans everywhere outside so they couldn't move."
Smeltz adds: "Where we stayed - maybe it wouldn't have suited another nation but suited us to a tee. It kept everyone relaxed."
Golf was off limits but there were barbecues and reserve goalkeeper James Bannatyne convinced the owners to install a hot tub at the house he was sharing with Nelsen, Simon Elliott, Chris Killen and Andy Boyens, while the players zipped around the complex on golf carts.
"We probably weren't the most sensible - one of them ended upside down after a late-night race," laughs Paston. "Not sure who that would be, probably Rory [Fallon]. The only downside was the heating; the houses were really nice but if the players used too much heating, the power would go off. It was the middle of winter, so it got quite cold."
There were also some frustrations with New Zealand Football, with players' expectations of a high performance environment not always aligning with what the national body provided. One early example was the meals, which were initially substandard before some frank conversations resolved the issue.
But overall, the camp was happy, boosted even more after a taste of the fever gripping New Zealand.
"One of the television networks approached me after the Slovakia game and said they had some amazing footage from back home and wanted to share it with the players," says Herbert. "I had an open discussion with the staff – wondering if it would tip the players over the edge - and eventually thought, why not?"
It was the right call.
"The coverage had led the news for 15 or 20 minutes and there probably wasn't a dry set of eyes in the room," said Herbert. "It added another layer to what they wanted to achieve."
The world champions
And then came Italy.
"Being in the tunnel was when it hit home," said Vicelich. "You're getting ready for the game and seeing the world champions there. But we weren't overawed. The belief had grown over many years."
A close 4-3 loss a year earlier had helped, as well as the strong pre-World Cup campaign.
"We'd had good results, guys were fit, knew the system, knew each other and the camaraderie was good," says Nelsen. "Worst case scenario, we knew we were going to be hard to beat. That kind of confidence is easy to say but hard to get. It's a foundation to build on."
With colourful support in the stands and hundreds of thousands watching back home despite the 2am kickoff, the All Whites made a perfect start, Smeltz poking home a deflected Elliott free kick.
"I always had a knack of just getting off the shoulder on people," says Smeltz. "Cannavaro was marking me and he tracked my run until he realised the ball was coming in and he half took his eye off me and was half on the ball, which was natural for a defender in the box.
"Luckily for me, it ends up going straight through and bounces off Cannavaro, surprisingly, and falls between myself and the goalkeeper, and there was only one person who was going to get on the end of that."
What was happening? As Brown pointed out in his Herald match report, New Zealand had 25 professional players, compared with Italy's 3,541.
But the All Whites looked solid, despite constant Italian pressure, until Daniele De Rossi's cynical dive, taking advantage of a naïve but minimal shirt tug by Tommy Smith in the 28th minute.
"The penalty? I've still got a bit of anger around that," says Vicelich. "It was quite soft."
On the New Zealand bench, Ben Sigmund was fuming, and squared up to Di Rossi at halftime, accusing him of cheating.
Vicelich intervened, helping De Rossi calm down as the Italian "bit back" at Sigmund, before the pair exchanged shirts in the tunnel. But Sigmund's action was critical.
"You get that little bit of anger for what happened and Siggy helped that as well," said Vicelich. "Seeing a teammate upset like that switches that emotion on inside everyone individually."
The second half was surely, given the stage and opposition, the greatest 45 minutes in New Zealand football history. The All Whites repelled everything Italy could conjure, while also enjoying moments of joy on attack.
"You can be strong, great culture and everything, but at the end of the day you could also drop off the radar," says Herbert. "They get back to 1-1 and we could end up losing the game 5-1. But not that team. That team never buckled."
The defensive trio of Reid, Nelsen and Smith were immense, while Elliott (36), who arrived at the World Cup without a club, was superb in midfield, demonstrating why Fulham had brought him to the English Premier League earlier that decade.
For 33-year-old Paston, this was the crowning moment of a career marred by numerous injuries as he looked – and felt – unbeatable.
"I was at the top of my game," says Paston. "Playing at altitude and with those [Jabulani] balls, they were really hard to get your hands on [but] I felt like I was flying at that stage.
"I remember making a save in that game where I thought, `yeah I'm going to be hard to beat'. I was in the zone and had a bunch of players in front of me who were defending really well."
One Guardian writer had labelled this game potentially the biggest mismatch of the tournament and the Italians were feeling the pressure.
"They were only tying with little old New Zealand and you could almost see the weight on their shoulders," says Paston.
Nelsen – who made a remarkable body block of a goal-bound shot from 3m among many heroic efforts – concedes the All Whites were lucky at times (a Ricardo Montolivio shot cannoned off the inside of the post) but also sensed the angst amongst those in blue.
"They started to play games and dive and pressure the referee instead of just playing. We were mocking them. This is what you have to do to beat us?"
And the All Whites had chances. 18-year-old Chris Wood turned Cannavaro inside out before shooting just wide of the far post, while Vicelich was inches away with a well-struck half volley from 20m.
"Having a chance to score against the world champions - I still can't believe it could have gone in," says Vicelich. "I still wake up at night on the odd occasion when someone else has reminded me about that and brings it back to the front of my mind. I say to my wife we might have moved to Italy for six months if that had gone in. Even now, I think I should have done better. It was so close."
Italy failed to progress to the knockout stages, at the time only the third occasion the reigning champions had fallen at the first hurdle, after Brazil (1966) and France (2002), which has helped to give Smeltz's goal lasting resonance.
"It's always something you dream of and want to achieve, but the amount of conversations and people you meet for years after, right up until now, it's something you carry with you," says Smeltz. "I've been to many Italian restaurants and it's been a topic of conversation, that's for sure."
After 93 minutes 46 seconds, Guatemalan referee Carlos Batre blew his whistle for the last time.
High in the stands, Prime Minister John Key hugged Fifa president Sepp Blatter, both incredulous at the result. Key – wearing a No 10 shirt – mixed with the All Whites in the dressing room before they returned to the field to salute the hundreds of travelling Kiwi supporters.
The team flew back to their base – "there might have been a few small cans of beer on the plane," laughs Vicelich – as the magnitude of their accomplishment sunk in.
The All Whites were front page news the next few days, and the talk of the World Cup. Herbert says the Italian press were incredulous that banker Andy Barron had taken the field in the dying minutes, while Brown remembers the disbelief among the world's media and fans, as the result sunk in.
A proposed day off was quickly scuttled by media manager Gordon Irving.
"They had just drawn with the world champions," says Irving. "It was going to be massive. And it was. We had Fleet Street there, Norwegian journalists, Aussies, plenty of South African media."
An Australia newspaper described it as "a famous day for New Zealand football, a famous day for New Zealand anywhere " adding that it was "a moment they will make bronze statues about."
The Daily Mail described the result as "the most heart-warming and unforeseen event at [this] World Cup" while the Guardian surmised that it was the day "that New Zealand finally fell in love with the round-ball game".
Four days later, New Zealand faced Paraguay, with expectations at fever pitch. They were unbeaten and anything seemed possible, while the All Blacks' series with Ireland had been shunted to the background. Labour MP Trevor Mallard introduced a bill to declare a public holiday if the All Whites prevailed, and schools were encouraged to be lenient with tardy students, given the 2am kickoff.
But Nelsen was struggling, hit by a nasty norovirus 36 hours before the game.
"I was throwing up, crook as a dog, didn't really sleep much," says Nelsen. "That scars me a bit. I took far too much on for that six weeks, the body broke down, which kind of pisses me off when I look back now."
Irving, who had endured the same virus eight days earlier, was stunned Nelsen even took the field.
"My experience was horrible, really bad," says Irving. "For him to do what he did showed how strong-minded he was."
New Zealand couldn't reach their previous levels against an excellent Paraguay side. They also seemed caught in two minds between chancing their arm for a win and staying tight at the back, even in the last 15 minutes, locked at 0-0.
Herbert has been criticised since but denies he was overly cautious.
"It was probably easy for people to say we could've done things differently, but in reality, could we have? That's the question I've always asked myself. I don't think we died wondering. Would you have honestly written down that that team would go to a World Cup and not get beaten?"
Nelsen takes a slightly different view.
"We probably should have thrown caution to the wind and had a real go. Looking back, I wasn't really thinking properly and was just surviving. Someone should have said, 'let's have a go at it'.
"But maybe we get caught on the counter and lose one or two nil – is the story then as good?
"It's one of those things that will haunt me for a bit, but if you had given me three draws at the start, I would have taken it. Three draws normally get you through."
The aftermath and legacy
The campaign was over, but for 10 magical days, they had touched the void.
It was celebrated with a party – complete with DJ and lighting – organised by Bannatyne, with Sigmund and Killen livening up proceedings with a naked streak, while Nelsen was thrown in the pool by teammates, wiping his phone.
The team then dispersed around the world, with a contingent arriving to a heroes' welcome in New Zealand.
They were honoured with the top gong at the Halberg Awards, with Herbert also picking up Coach of the Year and Reid's goal selected as the Best Sporting Moment.
Nelsen was strangely overlooked for Sportsman of the Year but was pleased to have performed so well at the most important time.
"I [rarely] played in New Zealand, only 10 or 15 games," says Nelsen. "There were articles written about me, saying he's not even that good.
"When I look back, to play as well as you can at that level and lead a bunch of guys and bring the country on a journey as well, I'll never forget until the day I die. That's one of the proudest things I've done, way more than the Premier League stuff.
"That was why I spent a million hours training, why you sacrifice your body. Nobody at home had really seen me play. It's not like it's Beauden Barrett or Richie McCaw, where everybody sees them all the time."
Paston says Nelsen's influence was massive.
"He had played at the top level. But there are some players who come into squads, who even though they're good and play at the top level, they don't have the influence on the overall team. He lifted everyone a few notches."
But Paston adds the key ingredient was the squad's perfect blend.
"It was full of guys who had been there, done that, a special mix of players. People talk a lot about Ryan, and yes, he was a big part of it, but the secret sauce was actually the squad, and everyone in the 23 played their part."
It was also vital Nelsen and Herbert put aside any previous differences.
"Ryan cast a big shadow," says Irving. "It's his nature that he will take control of a situation. He did a lot of organising and the players looked up to him. But they had professional respect for each other. Both realised they needed each other and they wanted to pursue their goal."
Together, they achieved something unique, and a decade later, Nelsen has no doubt about Herbert's contribution.
"Ricki's strength was that he let everyone do what they were good at," says Nelsen. "And that was great. I've had coaches saying, 'you have to do this', and it doesn't work. He let people be themselves. There was a culture created that was amazing and that is down to him."
And the team left a legacy that continues to this day.
"When you look back, it is pretty crazy to get those results and perform the way we did," says Nelsen. "But you can see, since that World Cup, a lot of the younger teams and the girls' teams have broken out of groups, gone on to [the knockout] stages and won a medal. I like to think the ripple effect of that team's performance has flowed through to all New Zealand teams at any level."