{mosimage} 15 June ~ There's a cautious optimism (this being New Zealand, the word "cautious" is probably redundant) about the Slovakia game. The pre-tournament friendlies, with a couple of narrow losses and a 1-0 win against Serbia, have led to a surge of interest in the World Cup that most had automatically assumed would end for us after three comprehensive but gritty backs-to-the-wall defeats.

It's that totally unexpected win against an under-strength Serbia side that is to blame for lifting people's hopes. It's already been heralded as New Zealand football's greatest ever result, but in a sport with a serious shortage of historical highlights, there isn't much competition for that title. In the glowing aftermath of the game, one of the more enthusiastic radio pundits warned that the result would "cause the football world to sit up and take notice" and that bookies everywhere would be "slashing the odds" on the Kiwis. In the event, no one outside of New Zealand seems to have sat up, let alone taken notice and the Kiwis odds of beating Slovakia have stubbornly clung to 8-1.

Aside from the friendlies, the usual type of World Cup build-up stories have been filling the papers: the publican who has offered the players free booze for a week if they make the second round; the striker giving up his honeymoon so he could be with his team-mates; the training session cut short by barbecue smoke.

But now it's all about today's meeting with Slovakia. The game kicks off at 11.30pm, but that won't stop a huge audience tuning in. New Zealanders are used to watching their sport in the early hours, and this is the earliest of the group games – the others both start at 2am. Realistically, the newfound optimism is about not looking out our depth and preserving the gains in credibility and fan support that have been made by football in the country over the last 12 months. If there are no embarrassing losses and even periods of the game where the All Whites look good, scramble a goal or even manage a screamer that unluckily hits the outside of the post, most should be happy.

Perhaps reading a little too much into the win over Serbia, some experts are predicting a draw or a narrow loss against Slovakia. For seasoned fans, a point would be not only be a barely believable reward for staying up half the night, but also a far more credible contender for our greatest ever result. Dave Roberts

Comments (1)
Comment by NiceOneCenturian 2010-06-16 08:39:26

a plucky point for the sheep botherers there. Bring on Italy!

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