If you’d told New Zealand beforehand that they’d go through the group unbeaten and finish above Italy, I daresay they’d have settled for that. And they’d be right to feel pretty pleased with themselves, but they’ll be frustrated that it wasn’t enough to get them through, and they go home as just the sixth team in World Cup history to be eliminated despite not losing a game. (Trivia time: how many of the other five can you name? Answers below.)
Mention of New Zeland rarely puts you in mind of football, but mention of Paraguay always makes me think firstly of Francisco Solano Lopez, the 19th century Paraguayan leader who I remember reading about and being briefly fascinated by as a kid. He was obsessed with Napoleon, had himself canonised, executed most of his family (including his mother), and embarked on a madcap scheme to invade – simitaneously – both Brazil and Argentina, their two much larger neighbours. (It didn’t work.)
It’s to be hoped that their current campaign to take on the world is in rather better hands, and on the basis of their performances in the first two matches they have somewhat better resources available to them now. But, while it wouldn’t be true to say they played only for the draw they needed, they turned in a surprisingly indifferent performance here, which will only add to New Zealand’s frustration – this match was winnable.
To be fair, the Kiwis threatened even less, and were reliant mostly on the odd set piece. It made for a game that was, with the best will in the world, pretty ordinary. From my notes, here’s a list of all the goal attempts in the first half hour:
14 Caniza half-volley from outside the area – off-target
17 Caniza ambitious volley from very wide on the right, over the bar
19 Caniza again from range, again off-target
29 Caniza has a pop from even further out – closer this time, but still over the bar
Denis Caniza is Paraguay’s right-back.
Later in the first half they did get a shot on target, a grass-cutter from Cardozo that Paston gathered easily. Other than that, the most interesting development in the first half was news of Slovakia’s opening goal against Italy, or in the limited amount of amusement to be had from listening to Craig Burley talking rubbish about the implications for qualification. (If only he read twohundredpercent.)
The second half wasn’t a great deal better, New Zealand had their first shot after a few minutes but Simon Elliott didn’t trouble the ‘keeper. Paraguay did have a couple of better chances, firstly a Riveros header forced a sharp save, then Paston got his fingertips to a Benitez shot that looked like it might be bending round him – the rebounds were both scrambled away. Paston was in action again with ten minutes left, beating away a free kick from Roque Santa Cruz, but by this time most of the interest was in the other match where regular goal updates kept us informed with Italy’s (mis)fortunes. I was sorely tempted to write off this game as a bad job and switch over to see the real action, but for as long as it was 0-0, New Zeland were still tantalisingly close. One scrambled injury time goal would have put them top of the group and made them the story of the tournament no matter how turgid the previous ninety minutes had been.
It wasn’t to be. I thought they’d get a golden chance at some point but the never really did – the closest thing to an “ooh” moment came when West Brom’s Chris Wood could quite stretch to reach a cross at the backpost. He was flagged offside anyway. It says everything about the lack of real incident in the game that I even bothered to tell you about it.
New Zealand are on the plane home then, and for all the heroics in performing so far above their station, and for all the frustration on just missing out, they can’t have any complaints – they weren’t good enough to win any games (I’m not amongst those who think there was any doubt about the penalty awarded against them in the Italy game, where Smeltz’s goal was in any case offside) and Slovakia and Paraguay are both better sides with better chances of progressing further.
Paraguay will have to play rather better than they did today, mind, but we’ve already seen they’re capable of it. I doubt they’ll be too worried – breaking down well-organised opponents in a game in which you’re favourites is a different and often difficult business, and they won’t be playing too many more games in those circumstances. But in a tournament in which so many big sides seem to be actively searching out banana skins, they’re potentially dangerous opponents for anyone.
Trivia answers: Previous unbeaten non-winners are Scotland (1974), Brazil (1978), Cameroon and England (both 1982), Belgium (1998)
Thanks as always to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.