NELSPRUIT, South Africa -- After the referee's final whistle sounded, the pockets of New Zealanders in Mbombela Stadium here went nuts. Actually, they'd been going nuts since New Zealand scored against Italy in the 7th minute on Sunday, then thwarted wave after Italian wave and dive after Italian dive -- though they couldn't avoid a dive-enhanced penalty that tied the game in the 29th minute -- and hung on for what I hadn't realized was a historic 1-1 draw.
In their all-white jerseys and black-and-white Harpo wigs, the fans -- many of them bare-chested in the chilling evening air -- had been waving New Zealand flags and chanting the entire game. They were far louder than their Italian counterparts, who eventually seemed resigned to a second-straight draw and filed quietly out of the stadium. The Kiwis stayed, gathering behind the New Zealand bench. One guy doffed his jersey, revealing what you'd politely call plumber butt, and waved it madly over his head.
All this for a tie? "This is like you guys beating the All Blacks," said
It's true. Four of the All Whites -- so named to distinguish from the ruggers -- play in the New Zealand Football Championship, which is indeed an amateur league. (One of them,
In short, when it comes to club soccer pedigree, Spain this is not. It's not even Slovakia or Slovenia, for that matter. New Zealand is 78th in the current FIFA rankings, just below Wales and just above Albania.
New Zealand's performance against fifth-ranked Italy was a victory for soccer's "minnows", if not for aesthetic beauty. Before the game, Italy's
Understanding all this, it becomes clear why the New Zealand players and fans were celebrating the tie against the defending World Cup champs like it was
Consider this: The Sport in New Zealand Wikipedia page lists soccer as New Zealand's fifth most-popular sport, behind rugby union, rugby league, cricket and -- I'm not making this up -- netball. The New Zealand soccer association did, however, make a huge investment in the sport recently: $450,000. Over three years.
New Zealand, it turns out, has an international soccer history even shorter than that of the United States. According to the Ultimate New Zealand Soccer Website, before World War II, apart from one-off visits from teams from China, Canada and England, the country for decades played only "trans-Tasman" matches against teams from Australia. Expansion in the 1950s meant games in New Caledonia, Fiji and Tahiti.
Soccer did get more popular after New Zealand qualified for its first World Cup, in 1982, where it lost its three first-round games by an aggregate score of 12-2. Then New Zealand caught a huge break when Australia was moved out of FIFA's Oceania confederation (and into Asia). New Zealand had only to finish ahead of the tiny island teams of New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu to advance to a playoff against the fifth-place team from Asia for a berth in South Africa. New Zealand "upset" Bahrain, winning 1-0 at home after a 0-0 tie in Bahrain.
For soccer fans in New Zealand, that would have been more than enough. "Bahrain was just a great result,"
While I was talking to Steve, Bruce and the gang, New Zealand's players and coaches -- including Herbert -- emerged from the tunnel. It was 20 minutes after the final whistle. A couple thousand Kiwi fans were in the stands on opposite sides of the stadium. The reserve players came out first. They waved and clapped at their supporters and kicked a couple of balls to fans. And then, to everyone's delight, they held a regular practice session on the field. Another 20 minutes later, the heroic starters arrived, greeted friends and strangers, signed autographs, posed for pictures, made small talk. It was like a big win at a small college. The mood was festive and low-key. Everyone seemed to know everyone. There were no barriers as in big-time sports.
"You can't touch the All Blacks. You can touch these guys," said
I was introduced to
Hay was holding one of those black-and-white Harpo wigs, which he wore during the game while cheering from the stands. (Try to imagine a retired American team-sports star doing the same.) I told him New Zealand soccer reminded me of the United States 20 years ago, went it sent a team to the World Cup that included a few amateurs.
"The difference," Hay said, "is we've got four million people and you've got ..."
Yes, 300 million.
After its first two matches in Group H, New Zealand has two goals, two ties and two points -- two more of anything its fans had expected (and two more points than Australia, one fan gleefully shouted). A win over Paraguay on Thursday in Polokwane would send the All Whites into the second round. A draw could, too. If that should happen, the fans and players might just stay in the stadium all night long.