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New Zealand fans rejoice after draw with defending champ Italy

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 Richard Koorey, a 36-year-old irrigation systems designer from Hastings, New Zealand, referring to the country's legendary national rugby team. "Some of them are amateurs. After they qualified for the World Cup, some of the guys went back to work on Monday."

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, Andy Barron, who works in a bank, came on as a sub against Italy.) Five play for Wellington Phoenix, the only New Zealand representative in Australia's pro league, and they are joined Down Under by three additional players. Five players do play in England -- but just one in the Premier League -- and one apiece in the top leagues in Denmark and Scotland. Two are in the U.S., one on the New York Red Bulls of MLS (Andy Boyens) and another (Jeremy Christie) on the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the second-division Pro League. Oh, and two guys were just released -- by the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS and by Wellington Phoenix.

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 Corriere dello Sport described the All Whites as a "bleak landscape of technical inadequacy." And compared to the dazzling footwork, passing and ball control of the Azzurri, it was true. The New Zealanders often looked like, well, amateurs. But the Italians couldn't finish. And the Kiwis stood tough as a rugby scrum. In soccer, talent doesn't always win.

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 Hoosiers on grass. Part of the reason is that, while in the U.S. we tend to think of every other country as a footballing nation, many aren't. FIFA may boast 208 members -- more than the United Nations! -- but soccer isn't uniformly the No. 1 sport.

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.

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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," Steve Corney, a 44-year-old gas industry executive in Wellington who played in New Zealand's amateur league, told me in the stands. How great? His friend, Bruce Duncan, a 47-year-old sales director from Wellington, was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the score, location and date of that game -- signed by the New Zealand coach, Ricki Herbert.

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 Clinton Willetts, 35, an IT consultant who lives in Melbourne, Australia. "For them to do what they did tonight, I'm speechless."

I was introduced to Danny Hay, whom Willetts described as "a legend of New Zealand football." Hay, 35, retired in 2007 as captain of the All Whites after a career that included three seasons at Leeds United and two at Walsall in England. He said he lined up as captain for New Zealand in Brazil's final friendly before the 2006 World Cup, but this night was even better. "Much as I'd like to be out there, other than my kids being born this is as good as anything," he said.

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.