Kiwi Miracle: New Zealand's Six-Year Road to South Africa

Updated on October 25, 2019
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Russian Area Studies and Journalism.

Every four years, the FIFA World Cup showcases various countries battling for glory on this massive stage. Whereas some nations hunt for global supremacy, other countries endeavor pride or restoring belief. Some countries participate in the tournament with nothing to lose, because reaching the World Cup represents an achievement unto itself. Some countries look to search for an identity, primarily to banish uncomfortable memories that led to irrelevance.

One such example happened for a country from as far as the other side of the world. New Zealand often regarded rugby, not football, as its primary sport. But with its rival Australia moving to play in Asia, New Zealand ended a 28-year wait in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In only the nation's second foray at the World Cup, New Zealand not only surpassed expectations but managed to finish as the World Cup's only unbeaten nation.

The result was impressive, given that Oceania receives no automatic berth in World Cup qualifying until 2026.

A fan waves New Zealand's flag during a World Cup match against Paraguay in Polokwane, South Africa.
A fan waves New Zealand's flag during a World Cup match against Paraguay in Polokwane, South Africa. | Source

Embarrassed and Left to Rue

On paper, New Zealand began its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign on Oct. 17, 2007.

In earnest, New Zealand began its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign on June 6, 2004.

As in previous years, New Zealand would contend with Australia for a chance at continental supremacy and the 2004 OFC Nations Cup was no exception. These two nations were expected to defeat national teams from Polynesian and Melanesian islands, after both nations met in their opening match. Despite losing 1-0 to Australia, New Zealand looked to win out. Instead, New Zealand suffered another loss during a qualifying match. Despite Vaughan Coveny scoring two goals, New Zealand found itself being losers of a 4-2 upset against Vanuatu (whose lone points of the tournament came in that match).

New Zealand finished with 19 goals after a 2-0 victory against Fiji - this match being the tournament's penultimate game in the six-team group. It turned out that it was New Zealand's last match not just for this tournament, but also for the year. Instead, the Solomon Islands would procure that chance to face Australia, not New Zealand. The Solomon Islands pulled off a 2-2 draw to face Australia in a playoff to become Oceania's representative for a chance to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup (Australia went on to break a 32-year drought and reach the Round of 16).

When it next played in 2005, New Zealand had a domestic manager and a familiar face from the 1982 World Cup squad.

New Zealand in action against Australia at London's Craven Cottage. This match happened to be the only match New Zealand played in 2005.
New Zealand in action against Australia at London's Craven Cottage. This match happened to be the only match New Zealand played in 2005. | Source

More Opportunities for South Pacific, Less for the Kiwis

In 2005, New Zealand hired Ricki Herbert to become the new manager. A member of New Zealand's squad at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Herbert became New Zealand's first domestic-born coach in three decades. The task to revive New Zealand began with another match against Australia - this match, which New Zealand lost 1-0 London's Craven Cottage, became the final meeting for both nations before Australia's move to the Asian Football Confederation 2006.

Games seldom came for New Zealand as it played 12 matches in two years and won only three - twice against Malaysia and a 3-1 victory against Georgia in Altenkirchen, Germany. Against elite nations, New Zealand incurred heavy defeats, including a 4-0 loss to Brazil in Geneva, Switzerland prior to the 2006 World Cup. Playing a game even proved difficult as before a 2-2 draw against Wales in 2007, New Zealand canceled its friendly against Ukraine due to lack of available players.

As New Zealand was not playing any games, Polynesian and Melanesian island nations ushered in the qualification phase for the 2010 World Cup. Ten island nations participated in the 2007 South Pacific Games (which doubled with that of World Cup qualifying), including Tuvalu, the first non-FIFA member to participate in a World Cup qualifier. As these nations played qualifying matches, their rankings rose. When September 2007 came, New Zealand sunk to 156th in the FIFA Rankings, which remains the nation's lowest ranking to date.

This ranking came before New Zealand's World Cup qualifier against Fiji, initially scheduled in Auckland on Oct. 13, 2007. However, the FIFA World Cup's Bureau for the Organizing Committee canceled that qualifier one day earlier. The decision came about due to New Zealand's refusal to grant a visa to Fiji's goalkeeper Simione Tamanisau to enter New Zealand (a decision made because the player's father-in-law had ties to the 2006 Fijian coup d'etat).

Now New Zealand needed just an opportunity to save face.

New Zealand against Brazil

On the Rebound

After Australia left to join the Asian Football Confederation, New Zealand were favorites to win the 2008 OFC Nations Cup and another step to a World Cup play-off. New Zealand began qualifying on Oct. 17, 2007 - Ivan Vicelich scoring the initial goal as New Zealand defeated Fiji 2-0. Shane Smeltz emerged as New Zealand's key player; his eight goals in that span helped New Zealand during qualifying. At one point, Smeltz managed to score two goals in three consecutive qualifiers.

Many players did score their maiden goals for New Zealand, including one player during New Zealand's qualifier in Port Villa, Vanuatu. David Mulligan scored in stoppage time to secure New Zealand's vital victory, and the result repeated five days later against the same opponents. Mulligan and Smeltz each recorded two goals in a 4-1 win in which New Zealand hosted Vanuatu at Wellington's Westpac Stadium. New Zealand's next match at this stadium would come in November 2009.

Before New Zealand's qualifier at New Caledonia in Noumea, Sigmund earned only his second cap against Wales in 2007. Sigmund achieved his first cap back in 2000 against Oman, but his initial goal against New Caledonia set New Zealand to a 3-1 victory. Continental supremacy was confirmed five days later in Auckland. Smeltz's two goals and the first international goal from Jeremy Christie improved New Zealand as the nation reached its highest ranking (54th) since 2003.

A 2-0 loss to Fiji in the rescheduled qualifier that was played in Lautoka, Fiji on Nov. 19, 2008 proved costly for one player. New Zealand goalkeeper Glen Moss received a red card during the match. Moss's punishment became exacerbated when the goalkeeper swore profanities toward referee Lencie Fred. Moss saw no more action as controversial circumstances resulted in him serving a four-match suspension.

Playoff Berth Assured in Auckland

So Close in South Africa

Litmus Tests Abroad

On June 2, 2009, New Zealand, having won the 2008 OFC Nations Cup, found out it would host the second leg of the play-off against an Asian team in November. New Zealand began 2009 losing 3-1 Thailand before playing in three friendlies ahead of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Following a 2-1 loss to Tanzania and a scoreless draw against Botswana, New Zealand next faced Italy in its final match before the Confederations Cup.

This game occurred in Atteridgeville, a suburb of Pretoria, South Africa; it would be here where New Zealand nearly caused a major upset. New Zealand looked to capitalize on an injury-riddled Italy squad without three players and managed to lead three times with Smeltz opening the scoring and Chris Killen adding two goals. Italy answered to tie the game on all three occasions. Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta each scored twice, with Iaquinta's goals coming in four minutes to take the lead. Despite losing 4-3, New Zealand earned respect from fans worldwide.

Though New Zealand earned its first point against Iraq in the Confederations Cup, the result came after being eliminated following losses to Spain and South Africa. New Zealand left the tournament without a goal, last scoring a goal at this tournament in 1999. New Zealand did defeat Jordan in their first match following the Confederations Cup. The victory away in Amman gave confidence for New Zealand ahead of its two-legged tie against another Asian opponent.

Known by locals as the "Cake Tin," Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand hosted New Zealand's 2010 World Cup qualification play-off against Bahrain on November 14, 2009.
Known by locals as the "Cake Tin," Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand hosted New Zealand's 2010 World Cup qualification play-off against Bahrain on November 14, 2009. | Source
Rory Fallon (14) of New Zealand celebrate with teammates after scoring the decisive goal for New Zealand in a World Cup playoff against Bahrain.
Rory Fallon (14) of New Zealand celebrate with teammates after scoring the decisive goal for New Zealand in a World Cup playoff against Bahrain. | Source

The Goal at Wellington

45 Minutes to South Africa

Emerging from Nowhere

His road to earning his first cap against Jordan began over a decade earlier. Rory Fallon had dual citizenship for England and New Zealand and opted to play for England at youth level. Fallon also played for New Zealand's under-16 squad at the 1998 Tournoi de Montaigu in Nice, France. In 2006, Herbert wanted Fallon to represent New Zealand before but thought the possibility would not happen. Original regulations mandated players with dual citizenship who wanted to switch allegiance had before their 21st birthday to do so. For Fallon, that meant the cut-off date was until March 2003. Fallon never made an original application and it seemed that Fallon would represent England.

However, on June 3, 2009; FIFA revised Article 18 as it authorized the removal of age restrictions for changing associations for players who played for a country's national team at youth level. This now meant that Fallon can represent New Zealand and exactly two months later received his first call-up.

By then, New Zealand learned it would face Bahrain for the right to play in South Africa, after Bahrain knocked out Saudi Arabia on a late injury time goal. New Zealand looked to generate something of the two-legged series and made an encouraging start. Fallon started in New Zeland's first leg at Bahrain in Manama, a result that finished scoreless thanks to goalkeeper Mark Paston and his crucial saves.

Fallon and Paston played pivotal roles during the second leg at Westpac Stadium. With halftime looming and aggregate still scoreless, New Zealand capitalized on a corner kick as Leo Bertos found Fallon, the latter heading in the goal before halftime. In the second half, Bahrain had a chance to go ahead after Tony Lochhead brought down Abdullah Omar inside the penalty box. One goal stood between New Zealand and possible elimination, but Paston saved Mohamed Adnan's penalty kick.

Bahrain could not find that away goal and the fans inside Westpac Stadium erupted in euphoria. New Zealand qualified for the World Cup.

Late Goal Salvages Point

Return to Rustenburg

New Zealand achieved redemption during qualifying, but prior to the 2010 World Cup suffered three defeats in four friendlies. New Zealand endured a difficult four-minute stretch against Mexico in the Rose Bowl and allowed a stoppage-time goal against Australia in Melbourne. In addition, Milivoje Novakovic scored twice for the host against New Zealand in Maribor, Slovenia. New Zealand's notable result occurred in Klagenfurt, Austria - Smeltz scoring the lone goal in New Zealand's 1-0 victory agaisnt Serbia.

Twenty-eight years after debuting in Spain, New Zealand returned to where it began its Confederations Cup in 2009: Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Many people thought New Zealand had a chance of securing a draw against Slovakia. However, New Zealand had a blunder when Paston mistimed a clearance, allowing Robert Vittek to achieve an opportunity on goal. Although New Zealand enjoyed some early chances, another loss looked imminent when Vittek scored a 50th-minute.

New Zealand got a lifeline late in stoppage time. He debuted for New Zealand in Australia before the tournament, and Winston Reid headed in the tying goal in stoppage time, thanks in part to a Smeltz pass. Reid's goal arrived 28 years to the day New Zealand last scored at a World Cup, but this time it salvaged a first every draw.

New Zealand hoped for another result against Italy in Nelspruit. When both nations met in 2009, the attendance for their game was 10,000 people. In 2010, that figure for the World Cup match reached 38,229.

Shane Smeltz (9) celebrates with captain Ryan Nelsen after Smeltz scored against Italy in a World Cup match in Nelspruit, South Africa.
Shane Smeltz (9) celebrates with captain Ryan Nelsen after Smeltz scored against Italy in a World Cup match in Nelspruit, South Africa. | Source

Miracle at Nelspruit

Before the 2010 World Cup, reigning champions Italy was ranked fifth in the world, compared to New Zealand at 78th. Italy fielded several players with over 100 caps, including Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Gennaro Gattuso. New Zealand had 25 professional players, with some players playing their club football for Wellington Phoenix in Australia's A-League.

Most players began their football odysseys in the United States at collegiate and professional levels, including Ryan Nelsen and Tony Lochhead. New Zealand's most-capped player, Vicelich played for the semi-professional club Auckland City. New Zealand's second most-capped player on the squad was Simon Elliot; an MLS champion with Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002, Elliot had no club affiliation after San Jose Earthquakes waived him. Conversely, Aaron Clapham had zero caps before the tournament but reached the final 23-man roster thanks to an impressive training camp. Reid was one of seven New Zealand's players based in Europe, playing for Denmark's FC Midtjylland. Finally, Andy Barron, having played in New Zealand's second leg against Bahrain, played for the semi-professional club Team Wellington while also working as a full-time investment banker.

A game many predicted to be lopsided began with New Zealand capitalizing on a gamble in which Herbert started Nelsen, Killen, and Fallon. Elliot curled his free kick into the penalty area when a slight Cannavaro bobble allowed Smeltz to poke in the goal. Replays looked as if Smeltz was offside, but Smeltz was not interfering with the play; the pass went off Cannavaro's arm and Smeltz took advantage. It happened to be one of only three shots New Zealand had in the game.

New Zealand led for the first time in a World Cup.

Riccardo Montolivo had Italy's first chances to score: two minutes after the goal in which Paston made a save and in the 27th minute in which his shot hit the post. On Italy's next possession, Tommy Smith pulled down Daniele De Rossi in the penalty area. Iaquinta converted the ensuing penalty kick. Italy wanted to spare its blushes, but attempts from De Rossi and Domenico Criscito went wide. Paston saved another De Rossi attempt late in the first half, and New Zealand remained level with Italy.

Italy used two substitutions to start the second half, with one nearly creating a goal. Antonio Di Natale had his shot saved by Paston in the 49th minute. New Zealand began with an offensive gamble but relied upon defense throughout.

Italy gained 15 corners, compared to New Zealand's zero. Montolivo received another opportunity in the 70th minute, only for Paston to save his long-range shot. Despite playing defensively throughout the second half, New Zealand did obtain one chance to score. New Zealand's sole teenager on the 23-man squad, Chris Wood managed a move on Cannavaro before missing his shot just wide right. Italy continued to press offensively, and Mauro Camoranesi would try his luck against Paston but was unsuccessful. As the match approached full time, New Zealand made its third substitution when Barron replaced Killen. Barron was the tournament's lone amateur player to participate in the World Cup. His entry into the game enhanced a feel-good story.

New Zealand's historic draw put the nation on the precipice of a knockout berth.

New Zealand's staring lineup against Paraguy in Polokwane, South Africa. Top row: Chris Killen, Winston Reid, Mark Paston, Tommy Smith, Rory Fallon, Tony Lochhead, Simon Elliott; bottom row: Ryan Nelsen (C), Ivan Vicelich, Leo Bertos and Shane Smeltz
New Zealand's staring lineup against Paraguy in Polokwane, South Africa. Top row: Chris Killen, Winston Reid, Mark Paston, Tommy Smith, Rory Fallon, Tony Lochhead, Simon Elliott; bottom row: Ryan Nelsen (C), Ivan Vicelich, Leo Bertos and Shane Smeltz | Source

So Close and So Proud in Polokwane

Now New Zealand had something to play against Paraguay in Polokwane. A victory would send New Zealand to the knockout stage; a win plus an Italy-Slovakia draw and New Zealand would win Group F. Few chances came for both nations in the first half. For New Zealand, the knockout stages seemed to be in reach as the second half began.

In the 48th minute, Elliott missed an attempt past the corner of the goal. Paston stopped four tries, including two attempts from forward Roque Santa Cruz. Paston kept New Zealand in contention, but the offense was running out of chances. Bad news came for Nelsen as his second yellow card in as many games meant Nelsen would not be eligible for New Zealand's next match if it advanced. Then in the 86th minute, Wood was unable to connect on a pass while sliding in the penalty box.

New Zealand only managed a scoreless draw; the result saw the nation join Scotland (1974), Cameroon (1982), and Belgium (1998) as unbeaten countries to suffer a group stage exit. New Zealand set tournament lows with only 15 shots, and its 663 passes were six fewer passes than what Spain's midfielder Xavi had during the 2010 World Cup.

However, New Zealand was the only undefeated nation at the tournament. Herbert resurrected New Zealand from obscurity to fame as the country rose 24 places to be ranked 54th in July 2010. A lot has changed for New Zealand since 2010, and its "Kiwi Miracle" in South Africa established a precedent to many emerging countries for whom just making it to the World Cup is more significant than an exciting month every four years.

Dreaming the Impossible Dream

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    © 2014 Antonio Martinez

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