Group F: New Zealand
The All Whites had a simple route to South Africa but staying there will be a harder task, says James Montague.
On the face of it, New Zealand couldn't have hoped for an easier path to the World Cup.
With Australia getting bored of tonking the likes of American Samoa and jumping the Oceania ship to play in the Asian Confederation, the All Whites navigated the most tepid of waters to reach their second finals. With New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and Bahrain (combined population: two million, a little less than Greater Manchester) all dispatched, some have questioned the validity of their presence at footballÃ¢ÂÂs top table. A disappointing Confederations Cup campaign last summer, where they were well beaten by South Africa and humiliated 5-0 by Spain, didnÃ¢ÂÂt help.
Ã¢ÂÂ¨But football success for most is, or at least should be, a relative concept, and whispers about the ease of New ZealandÃ¢ÂÂs qualification are unfair when taken out of context. The team is made up largely of solid, unspectacular pros such as Blackburn RoversÃ¢ÂÂ Ryan Nelsen and successful A-League exports like Gold Coast UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs Shane Smeltz, augmented by talented youngsters like West Brom's Chris Wood. New Zealand has just one professional club, and it doesnÃ¢ÂÂt even play in the national league. And letÃ¢ÂÂs not forget the historic prejudice for the oval-balled game. Qualification remains a remarkable achievement.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
A kind draw has raised slim hopes that reaching the second round is possible, and the All Whites will hope they can improve on their only other appearance in the finals, in 1982, when they lost heavily to Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland.
But New Zealand Football know that the real benefits of qualification will be felt years down the line. Ã¢ÂÂMaking it [to Spain 82] was one thing and not making fools of ourselves when we got there was another but I think we gave a good show of ourselves,Ã¢ÂÂ recalls ex-All Whites goalkeeper and current New Zealand Football president Frank Van Hattum. Ã¢ÂÂBut the World Cup has spin-offs: it gives football credibility [in New Zealand]. We will create heroes, stars and superstars. And kids get off on that.Ã¢ÂÂÃ¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
StrengthsÃ¢ÂÂ¨In a squad drawn from the lower leagues of English football, Australia's A-League and New ZealandÃ¢ÂÂs semi-pro ranks, glamour and guile are in short supply. But as their 0-0 draw in the brutal humidity of Bahrain proved, tenacity and stout defensive organisation are hardy alternatives. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
WeaknessesÃ¢ÂÂ¨As rank outsiders alongside North Korea, New ZealandÃ¢ÂÂs weaknesses are almost insurmountable. But the biggest hurdle will be scoring goals. They failed to score at last summerÃ¢ÂÂs Confederations Cup and only managed to score once over 180 minutes against Bahrain. They did beat Vanuatu 4-1 in qualification though...
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Interesting factÃ¢ÂÂ¨The goal that beat Bahrain and sent the All Whites to South Africa was scored by an Englishman. Sort of. Plymouth Argyle striker Rory Fallon represented England youth during his spell at Barnsley, but switched just before last yearÃ¢ÂÂs crucial play offs after FIFA relaxed rules governing players who hold dual nationalities.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
The Coach: Ricki HerbertÃ¢ÂÂ¨YouÃ¢ÂÂll recognise the type: brash and confident, Herbert is the archetypical Antipodean leader weÃ¢ÂÂve come to begrudgingly respect through England's various failings in cricket and rugby over the years. It has been a great 12 months for Herbert, another alumnus from that 1982 World Cup team: he also guided New Zealand's only professional team, the Wellington Phoenix, to the play-offs in this seasonÃ¢ÂÂs Australian A-League. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Key Player: Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ryan NelsenÃ¢ÂÂ¨If the Blackburn defender can lead his team to the second round for the first time, then the ghosts of Ã¢ÂÂ82, forever hanging over Kiwi football, will be banished forever.
Probable Team (4-4-2): Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Paston; Ã¢ÂÂ¨Sigmund, Vicelich, Nelsen, LochheadÃ¢ÂÂ¨; Killen, Brown, Elliot, Bertos; Ã¢ÂÂ¨Smeltz, Fallon
FixturesSlovakia, June 15, 12.30pm, RustenburgItaly, June 20, 3pm, NelspruitParaguay, June 24, 3pm, Polokwane
Qualified Top of OFC GroupFiji (A) 2-0Vanuatu (A) 2-1Vanuatu (H) 4-1New Caledonia (A) 3-1New Caledonia (H) 3-0Fiji (H) 0-2Bahrain (A) 0-0Bahrain (H) 1-0
World Cup record1982 1st Round