Yesterday, much of the nation discovered the round ball
belongs to a sport that delivers heroes every bit as outsized
as the oval one.
A good portion of the labour force turned up for work
emotionally drained, sleep-deprived and running on adrenalin,
having just witnessed the best performance - and result -
from a New Zealand football side.
The heroics and hyperbole of the 1-1 draw with Slovakia were
cast aside as the All Whites took on the might of Italy and
held those fancied, fleet-footed, blue-shirted millionaires
to a 1-1 draw.
This, of course, ignores the reality that for much of the
game, billed pretty much as a contest between a Lamborghini
and a Fiat Panda, the All Whites were hard-pressed in
defence: but, oh what magnificent defence, clearing corner
after corner, blocking probes, parrying blistering shots -
backs Tommy Smith, Winston Reid, goalie Mark Paston,
midfielder Ivan Vicelich and, marshalling them, leading by
example, the indomitable skipper Ryan Nelsen.
Like a modern-day Horatio on the bridge, he played like a man
possessed, inspiring within his loyal and equally relentless
followers a physical mantra to frustrate the blue advances:
they shall not pass.
It was a case of fitness, guts and determination denying
flair, a penchant for play-acting and an eccentric referee.
A proud day for New Zealand sport, and should they achieve
nothing more, this All Whites team have surely written
themselves large into a small nation's sporting history.
As much as there is admiration in the actual performance, the
historic draw has wider resonance.
There is no bigger tournament in world sport than the Fifa
To qualify is a mission in itself, full of its own pulsating
dramas - witness the fateful decider with Bahrain at
Wellington's Westpac Stadium earlier this year, the Rory
Fallon header for goal, the Paston penalty save.
The eyes of the world are upon this tournament as they are no
other, even arguably, the Olympics, and in their spectacular
form-upending results to date, the All Whites will have had
those eyes turning in this direction: a tiny country down
under which, they will have been reminded, punches above its
weight in so many arenas - whether, it is beating Hollywood
at its own game through Wellington's Weta Workshops;
providing leading scientists and businessmen in a variety of
fields; world leadership in international organisations;
artists, authors, musicians of note; high-tech industry
innovation; champion yacht design; pinot noir to die for; not
to mention unparallelled natural beauty and a peerless dairy
The associations may be subliminal, but for New Zealand Inc,
they are priceless, a point that will not have been lost on
Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key, who was present
at the match and quick to congratulate the team yesterday
But the outcome also does the sporting world a favour: it is
a reminder that it is precisely the upset result that allows
for the possibility of glory, the reaffirmation that -
stripped of hype, reputation and the bookmaker's odds -
football, like other great games, is a great leveller, can
turn certainty on its head and reinstil the essential
competitive nature of the contest.
Thus have a team of rank outsiders, true underdogs, unsettled
the elite of world football.
In the lead-up to the tournament, website sbnation.com
predicted the All Whites had "as much chance of advancing out
of group stage as a paraplegic pig thrown into a tiger pit
has of walking out of there unscathed".
The All Whites must, in the early hours of Friday morning,
now beat Paraguay to be sure of progressing, arguably an even
tougher prospect than playing Italy (a draw could also see
them through as long as Italy also draws, but the All Whites
score more goals in total).
But as the hero of the hour, "Horatio" Nelsen, said in his
own adrenalin-exulted post-match state: "We have given
ourselves a chance."