Serbian millionaires made to look like paupers

BAD REACTION: A Serbian supporter is scragged by a security guard after invading the pitch during his team's loss to the All Whites.
Reuters
BAD REACTION: A Serbian supporter is scragged by a security guard after invading the pitch during his team's loss to the All Whites.

How can Kiwis get the All Whites' best international football victory into some kind of relevant sporting context?

A colleague claimed yesterday a 1-0 win over Serbia – ranked 15th in the world – was "like Russia beating the All Blacks".

It was almost certainly the biggest upset by a New Zealand sporting team since the Tall Blacks finished fourth at the 2002 basketball world championships.

Cast your eye down the team sheets and you'll see a stark polarity between the players from Serbia and the battlers from New Zealand.

Tall timber Serb striker Nikola Zigic only this week inked a $12.7 million transfer and four-year deal with English Premier League club Birmingham City after starring in the Spanish league for Valencia.

Yet Zigic was putty in the hands of Kiwi captain Ryan Nelsen, the only All White playing at premier league level. Nelsen even beat him in the air despite conceding 15cm to the 2.02m Serb.

Nelsen apart, the starting XI which stunned the Serbs have been plying their trade in the second tier English Championship (Chris Wood, Tommy Smith and Rory Fallon), the Danish first division (Winston Reid) or the Australasian A-League (scorer Shane Smeltz, Mark Paston, Tony Lochhead, Leo Bertos), a midfielder from the second rung of American professional football (Jeremy Christie) and a 35-year-old veteran (Simon Elliott) who doesn't even have a club.

The Serbs' superstar is Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic, who broke the transfer record for a Russian premier league defender when he moved to Sparktak Moscow. He then went to Old Trafford for a $14.8m transfer fee and is quite possibly paid $200,000 per week at British football's wealthiest club.

The Serbs fielded four EPL players. The rest were from the top tiers of the German, Spanish or Italian leagues. They did not have a single home-based player in their starting lineup.

Neven Subotic, the Borussia Dortmund defender who missed a free, far-post header, is on Chelsea's radar. They are tipped to have to pay up to $25 million for him.

Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic has cost $8m in transfer fees between Serbian, French and Portugese clubs. Replacement left back Aleksandar Kolarov plays for Rome club Lazio but Jose Mourinho wants to lure him to Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Get the picture now? It's easy to understand why New Zealand football folk were turning cartwheels at the All Whites' accomplishment.

Forget the fact this match was tagged a "friendly". There are no friendlies a fortnight out from the World Cup. Every player in every team is playing for his place at the world's greatest sporting tournament.

The Serbian fans who hurled missiles on the pitch and invaded the field hardly thought the result unimportant. It took Vidic's diplomacy skills to appeal for calm and allow the match to go the full distance.

Serbian supporters were smarting at a loss to a determined All Whites outfit who could easily have doubled their winning margin.

The All Whites have had more important wins – most notably the World Cup playoff victories over China in Singapore in 1982 and Bahrain in Wellington last November. But this was their best by far.

New Zealand football supporters for so long patronised by fans of codes only Commonwealth countries care about can now dare to dream a little.

After dominating Australia despite a 2-1 loss and a deserved victory over Serbia, the All Whites are building momentum.

Serbia are a better side than Slovakia, New Zealand's first-up opponents in South Africa on June 15, and are probably at least the equal of Paraguay.

Could Ricki Herbert's class of 2010 become the first New Zealand team to win a game at a Fifa senior tournament and qualify for the second round?

You wouldn't have thought so a week ago. But bookmakers around the world may be rapidly revising their odds.

Italy will be firm favourites in group F and should win all three matches. But if the All Whites beat Slovakia and the Slovaks and Paraguay draw, Herbert's men would go through.

As Shane Smeltz has warned, the players won't be getting too carried away with yesterday's result but their growing legion of fans will already be dancing a little jig.

FAMOUS FIVE: THE ALL WHITES GREATEST HITS

How does the 1-0 win over Serbia rate among famous New Zealand football victories?

1May 30, 2010: New Zealand 1 Serbia 0 (friendly, Klagenfurt, Austria)

The All Whites take their greatest scalp against a Serbian side led by Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic. Serbia are ranked 15th in the world, the All Whites 78th. If you're looking for a comparable rugby upset, it'd be a mid-ranked minnow such as Scotland toppling the All Blacks. A classy strike by Shane Smeltz and mental toughness to close out the win after leading for more than an hour carried Ricki Herbert's men home.

2 January 11, 1982: New Zealand 2 China 1 (World Cup playoff, Singapore)

As assistant coach Kevin Fallon raved at the time, "the smallest nation in the world beats the biggest". High on this list because of its high-stakes status. This was the final stop on the 15-match road to New Zealand's first World Cup finals in Spain later that year. The goals were supplied by two of New Zealand's greatest strikers, Wynton Rufer and Steve Wooddin.

3 November 14, 2010: New Zealand 1 Bahrain 0 (World Cup playoff, Wellington)

The $10 milliion match. Rory Fallon's header from heaven from a Leo Bertos corner earned New Zealand Football a seven-figure payday and, more importantly, a place on the World Cup finals stage for the second time. A capacity crowd at Westpac Stadium produced the greatest atmosphere yet experienced in a New Zealand sporting arena.

4 August 20, 1980: New Zealand 4 Mexico 0 (friendly, Auckland)

The 1-0 Oceania Nations Cup victories over Australia in 1998 and 2002 were arguably more important because they got the All Whites to the cash-rich Confederations Cup finals, but the four-goal rout of the Mexicans was New Zealand's best performance against a Central American superpower and set the platform for the 1982 World Cup qualification. Brian Turner, assistant coach of the 2010 team, grabbed two goals.

5 May 27, 2006: New Zealand 3 Georgia 1 (friendly, Altenkirchen, Germany)

Noteworthy for the fact it was the All Whites' first victory on European soil. Georgia, who have never qualified for a World Cup finals, weren't exactly European heavyweights but they were ranked 101 in the world at the time with the All Whites at 118 after the 2004 World Cup qualifying campaign debacle in Adelaide.

Compiled by Tony Smith

The Dominion Post