Defender recalls NZ's greatest moment

WORLD CLASS: Bobby Almond went from playing with Invercargill Thistle in New Zealand's national league to the biggest stage in world football in 1982 when the All Whites qualified for the finals of the World Cup.
WORLD CLASS: Bobby Almond went from playing with Invercargill Thistle in New Zealand's national league to the biggest stage in world football in 1982 when the All Whites qualified for the finals of the World Cup.

It's one of the greatest tales in New Zealand's sporting history.

In 1982, a group of predominantly club players from football minnows New Zealand overcame the odds and did the unthinkable to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time.

That sent them to Spain to compete against football giants Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland – teams that boasted players in the Manchester United, Liverpool, Glasgow Celtic and Flamengo ranks.

Taking the pitch against them for the All Whites during the World Cup was central defender and vice-captain Bobby Almond, who was playing for a club at the other end of the spectrum, Invercargill Thistle – in the New Zealand national league.

Almond commuted down from Christchurch to play for the Fred Simpson-coached Thistle side that season but featured in only half of its matches because of World Cup qualifying commitments before it was relegated.

He was then thrust from Invercargill's Surrey Park to the biggest stage in world football, marking up against some of the most potent strikers in the game such as Brazilian star Zico and iconic Scotsman Kenny Dalglish.

The All Whites had to play the most matches (15), travel the furthest (55,000 miles) and score the most goals (44) to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, and the English-born Almond, who played on Tottenham Hotspur's youth team, said just getting there was an unbelievable achievement.

"Our journey we had before getting to the World Cup was our World Cup final in itself. We reached our pinnacle. Everything after that was a bonus."

Almond was the rock of the New Zealand defence during qualifying, with the 30-year-old starting in all 15 matches. He was rated as one of the All Whites' best in their sudden-death 2-1 Asian zone playoff win against China in Singapore – which booked the side's ticket to Spain.

New Zealand jumped out to a 2-nil lead, but China pulled a goal back late in the contest to set up an epic finish. Almond remembers being under the pump from the Chinese, with the searing Singapore heat not making it any easier.

"We were struggling in terms of our fitness. I remember our captain Steve (Sumner) hit the nail on the head. He said we needed to play to one of our big strengths and that was our defence."

After the match, there were scenes of ecstasy, with the All Whites achieving what even the most ardent New Zealand footballer could not have dreamt possible a year earlier when they started their qualifying campaign.

"When the final whistle went, we knew that all the travel, all the hard work, tears and sacrifice had come to fruition," Almond said.

"It was all a bit of a blur."

Not surprisingly, Almond held on to his spot in the New Zealand defence for the World Cup finals and started against the Scots and Brazilians.

He was forced to miss the All Whites' second match of the tournament against the Soviet Union because of an Achilles injury.

New Zealand lost all three matches in Spain, but Almond said there were moments at the World Cup he would treasure for the rest of his life.

Playing against Scotland, who were laden with players in England's top division, was especially satisfying for the transplanted Briton, who moved to New Zealand when he was 22.

Almond was able to renew ties with Graeme Souness, who played for Liverpool at the time and had been part of the same Tottenham youth side as him.

Brazil are revered around the world by football fans and Almond said it was a surreal experience to match up against some of the best players on the planet in the final game of the tournament. "For 29 minutes or so, we were able to hold them scoreless. That was an exercise in itself," he said, laughing.

Almond retired after the World Cup at the age of 30, with the defender a big believer in going out at the top of one's game.

The All Whites are the closest they have been to qualifying for a World Cup since the halcyon days of 1982. They can take a huge step towards sealing a place in next year's World Cup in South Africa with a favourable result in the first leg of their playoff series against Bahrain in Manama tomorrow.

Almond said New Zealand's World Cup qualification chances hinged heavily on their performance in the first leg.

"I'm pretty confident with the players we've got. There's no better time to make it count. Playing away (first) should give us an advantage because in the second leg they will know what they need to do ...

"We've got great strike power and the defence is going to be strong. I'd like to see that Kiwi strength and character come through."

These days, Almond is a retail business manager for Caltex in Christchurch – a company he has been with for the past 24 years.

He and many of the 1982 All Whites will be in the stands at Wellington's Westpac Stadium for the return leg on November 14 and said it was time for New Zealand's players and the Kiwi public to experience the magical feeling of competing in a football World Cup again.

"I'd be absolutely chuffed for them. For 27 years we've been the only (New Zealand) team to qualify. It's time to pass on the mantle."

The Southland Times