Gritty All Whites defence holds off Italy
All Whites 1 Italy 1 Match commentary
An ecstatic Ricki Herbert says the unbeaten All Whites "stopped the nation'' and trumpeted their stunning 1-1 draw with champions Italy as "the biggest result at the World Cup''.
Shane Smeltz's seventh minute goal from a flick-on by Winston Reid gave the All Whites the lead until Daniele De Rossi took a tumble in the area in the 29th minute and Vincenzo Iaquinta stroked home the spotkick for Italy's equaliser.
The All Whites - ranked 78th in the world - then defied four-time World Cup champions Italy - 73 places above them in the rankings - in one of the most heroic hour-long rearguard actions in the history of New Zealand team sport.
A beaming Herbert told a press conference that the All Whites had achieved "what 99.5 per cent of you in this room probably thought was impossible''.
"This is the World Cup and anything's possible. There've been some interesting results but I don't think you've seen one as big as that one. I don't think anybody would have remotely given us a chance tonight.
"We're doing okay for a team that's supposedly got some amateurs in it. We were playing the four-time world champions and a lot of people thought we shouldn't have been here and maybe not be part of the World Cup because the way we qualified was easy.
"Well, you can write your own stories now - we've just done it again,'' he said, pronouncing it "the most incredible result [New Zealand football] has had''.
"As a football code, it's bigger than we've achieved ever in the history of the game.''
Herbert said he didn't see De Rossi's dive and nor did he see if Smeltz was offside. "But we copped an offside goal against Slovakia to go 1-0 down. I haven't seen Smeltzy's finish but sometimes you get a bit of luck and sometimes you don't.
"We had quite a few decisions go against us [from Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres] tonight which seemed a bit strange.''
ALL WHITES STILL ALIVE
But he was proud as punch that the All Whites were "still alive'' in Group F as one of the few unbeaten teams at the tournament.
Paraguay top Group F with four points, having beaten Slovakia 2-0 in the early match, with Italy and the All Whites tied on two. A win against the South Americans in Polokwane on Friday morning would see the All Whites qualifying for the second round, where they would probably face the Netherlands in Durban.
The All Whites celebrated like winners after the final whistle as the Kiwi fans and neutrals in the full house crowd of 38,229 rose to salute the South Pacific underdogs.
There were hugs all around and the players, like they did after the 1-1 draw with Slovakia, stayed behind to share the moment with the hundreds of Kiwi fans in the stands.
Not surprisingly, Italy were the team doing all the attacking throughout the match but the All Whites defended like demons, especially in the second half as their talisman, Ryan Nelsen, Tommy Smith and Winston Reid pulled off a series of desperate tackles to keep New Zealand in the match.
Goalkeeper Mark Paston, the hero against Bahrain, was again the man of the moment and produced an incredible save to deny Riccardo Montolivo.
Italy, with 3541 professional footballers to New Zealand's 25, simply could not crack the defence as their coach, Marcello Lippi, was reduced to his knees late in the match.
Ricki Herbert, in contrast, could not wipe the smile off his face, and neither could the players and support staff.
With much at stake, there was plenty of tension in the opening exchanges and, as expected, both teams were not afraid to mix it physically.
Rory Fallon set the tone with an early elbow of Gianluca Zambrotta and, initially, the move paid off. Zambrotta saw his opportunity for payback two minutes later and pushed Fallon in the back, resulting in a free kick in the danger area.
Italy had talked about the need to limit New Zealand's opportunities and Lippi would have initially been annoyed at his right back, and furious after Smeltz scored the opening goal for the free kick.
Simon Elliott whipped in a delightful ball and Reid rose high above the pack, appearing to get a flick on which Fabio Cannavaro could not clear and Smeltz, the ultimate goal-poacher, nipped in to score his first World Cup goal.
There was a hint of offside, especially if Reid did get a touch, but the Costa Rican assistant kept his flag down and Smeltz celebrated his most significant goal on an All Whites shirt as the White Noise fans erupted and Herbert blew kisses to the crowd.
The seventh-minute goal stunned the world champions, not a team to lay down at any stage let alone at a World Cup, and they hit back strongly, targeting New Zealand's left-side defence.
New Zealand's strength up front was being negated by Italy's wise heads on defence and Fallon's continued use of his elbows. Batres quickly lost patience with the big target-man and issued him with an early yellow card.
It meant Fallon had to be careful and he was subdued till finally replaced by Chris Wood in the 63rd minute.
If Smeltz's opener was dubious, Italy's 29th minute equaliser was simply wrong. De Rossi and Tommy Smith were involved in some shirt tugging in the box before De Rossi took a clear dive and Batres was sucked in, even issuing Smith with a yellow card to rub salt into the wound.
Iaquinta made no mistake from the penalty spot.
As Italy proceeded to stamp their authority on the half, with 10 shots to 1 - Smeltz's goal - and 60 per cent possession, Batres continued to ping the All Whites, who were called for 15 fouls to Italy's seven.
The calls mounted against New Zealand in the second half with Herbert continually out of his seat voicing his frustrations to the fourth official from Mali.
Italy pressed and pressed but couldn't find a way. New Zealand, who had created nothing apart from Smeltz's goal for the first hour, grew in the final third and both Ivan Vicelich and Wood could only watch as their potential match-winning efforts went agonisingly wide of the posts.
Mpumalanga, the province surrounding Nelspruit, means the place where the sun rises and for New Zealand the sun rose on another wonderful day for football.
What will be next?