It has taken twenty-eight years, but New Zealand are back on the global stage in world football. Their 1-0 win against Bahrain this morning saw them through to the World Cup finals next summer. A record crowd for a football match in the country of over 35,000 packed out The Westpac Stadium in Wellington. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg in the Middle East, a single goal from Rory Fallon scored the only goal of the match just before half-time, but New Zealand had to live with shredded nerves in the second half. Goalkeeper Mark Paston saved a 51st-minute penalty from Bahrain’s Sayed Adnan after Tony Lochhead fouled Abdulla Omar.
This morning’s result also means that there will no representative from the Middle East at a World Cup finals for the first time since 1974. This may inadvertently cause problems for New Zealand’s natural rivals Australia, though. Australia switched from the Oceania confederation to the AFC in search of more competitive football in 2006, and have now qualified for two successive World Cups (although their 2006 qualification came from winning the OFC group and winning a play-off against Uruguay). This hasn’t been completely popular with other AFC nations, and Australia qualifying at, as they may see it, the expense of a “genuine” Asian team with a second Oceanic team also knocking an Asian team out of the competition via the play-offs may reignite the debate over whether Australia should be in the AFC.
For New Zealanders of a certain age and above, the result this morning will have brought back a few memories of their only other successful qualifying campaign in the World Cup. The tournament had been expanded from sixteen to twenty-four teams for the 1982 tournament in Spain, and New Zealand were one of the biggest beneficiaries of this expansion. In the first round of the combined AFC/OFC qualifying competition, they started off with a 3-3 draw against Australia and won their group comfortably, scoring thirty-one goals in the process (including a 13-0 win against Fiji), which put them through to a final group of four, of which two nations would qualifying for Spain.
During this opening group stage, events elsewhere would help the team. Rugby, of course, is the traditional sport of New Zealand but the football team picked up more support than it ever had done before when South Africa toured the country in July and August of 1981. With most countries boycotting the Springbok team because of the apartheid system in South Africa, there were huge protests which included one match being cancelled, a sit-down protests in the centre of Wellington and a light plane dropping flour bombs on the pitch during the final test match between the two sides in Auckland.
The second group stage saw New Zealand playing against Kuwait, China and Saudi Arabia. They struggled throughout this round of home and away matches, losing at home to Kuwait and struggling to draws against China and Saudi Arabia, but managed to turn things around in their final two matches, managing a 2-2 draw in Kuwait City in their penultimate match and finshed with a 5-0 win against Saudi Arabia on an artificial pitch in Riyadh, with drew them level on points and goal difference with China, to forcing a play-off match against them in Singapore. New Zealand won this match to book their flight to Spain and, if for no other reason than sheer effort, they deserved it. Their 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign was, at the time, the most arduous ever undertaken by a country – they had travelled 55,000 miles and played more matches and scored more goals than any team ever had in qualifying for the World Cup at the time.
They were also the last team to qualify for the competition, with their final match being played on the tenth of January 1982, just before the draw for the finals of the compeition itself. Thedraw wasn’t find to them, pitching them against the tournaments Brazil, a strong Scotland team and the perennial (to the point of cliche) “dark horses”, the USSR, with their matches to be played in Seville and Malaga. When Scotland raced into a 3-0 half-time lead one might have felt that humiliation would be inevitable in all three of their matches, but second half goals from Steve Sumner and Steve Wooddin made Scotland sweat in bringing the score back to 3-2 before goals from John Robertson and Steve Archibald finally settled their nerves.
New Zealand lost all three of their matches in the end, following their 5-2 defeat against Scotland with 3-0 and 4-0 losses against the USSR and Brazil respectively. The size of their task, however, is easily shown from the players that scored against them in their remaining matches. Oleg Blokhin and Sergei Baltacha were amongst the goalscorers in their match against the USSR, whilst the goalscorers against them for Brazil were Zico, Falcao and Serginho. Also, the two goals that they did score had some influence on the rest of the competition. They meant that Scotland started their final match against the USSR with an inferior goal difference and on equal points, meaning that Scotland had to win rather than draw their final match. It ended 2-2 and Scotland were out. Had they beaten New Zealand 5-0 rather than 5-2, they would have qualified on goals scored.
All of that, though, is in the past. It seems unlikely that New Zealand could get as difficult a draw as they did in 1982 again in 2010, but it is certainly possible. The majority of their current squad ply their trade in Australia and New Zealand, though there are a couple of names that may be more familiar to British readers, most notably Celtic’s Chris Killen, Ryan Nelson of Blackburn Rovers and their goalscorer this morning, Plymouth Argyle’s Rory Fallon, so there are solid professional players in their squad. Their success may also spur on Ireland, Slovenia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, who play their controversial UEFA play-off matches later today. If New Zealand can make it to the World Cup finals, why shouldn’t one of these countries upset France, Portugal or Russia?
A Short Precis On New Zealand’s 1982 World Cup Team