Heroes all

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 World Cup.

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 industry.

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 morning.

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."


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