24 June ~ The match up between the world's 82nd best team and the world's 29th best team is the most eagerly awaited in our nation's history. If the All Whites can manage to scrape a win, or even a draw, in this final group game against Paraguay, it could not only send them through to the knockout stages, but even see them finishing top of the group. The reaction to their run so far has been a mix of disbelief and widespread excitement.
We knew the team were pretty good by South Pacific standards, but a draw with Slovakia? A draw with Italy, as in "Italy – the World Champions"? And now, just one more shock result away from the top 16 of world football. With each game, the messages coming from inside the camp are being taken more and more seriously. When coach Ricky Herbert first started talking about qualifying for the second round, the reaction was along the lines of "Well, he has to say that, doesn't he?" Now, we believe him.
The public feel a visceral connection to this team, and the reaction to the draw with Italy was telling, with many fans admitting to breaking down in tears when the final whistle blew. There's a sense of heartfelt pride in a national sporting team that has been missing since the All Blacks distanced themselves from their fans and became a slick, inaccessible and ruthlessly commercial "brand". Supporters love the fact that the All Whites squad is a rag-tag mix of local players, rejects from the likes of Halifax and Rochdale, Championship benchwarmers, a bank clerk who was lucky to be given time off to play, a 36-year-old without a club and unlikely to find one, and someone from a team in Denmark that no one has heard of.
Ryan Nelsen, our most impressive player, is seen as the archetypal Kiwi male: taciturn, hardworking, humble. It just seems right that he plays for Blackburn Rovers, and not some flashy big city club. If Nelsen and his men can scrape through to the next round, there'll be partying throughout what's left of the night, massive absenteeism the following day and a parade through the streets of Wellington on their return. The same will probably happen even if they lose. The All Whites have already done a nation proud. Dave Roberts www.daverobertsbooks.com