New Zealand 1 - 1 Slovakia
Reid 90 + 3 Vittek 50
We were about due something heartwarming, and now it's happened. Everyone had really just entirely assumed New Zealand were about to be slaughtered. Tracey, having organised the work sweepstake and then drawn them, was holding out for the booby prize.
They've certainly come a long way in the last few years. Take Leo Bertos for instance. He's come from Wellington, via Worksop, and back to Wellington again. Martin Keown on the commentary team was moved to a kind of Adam Smith style ecstasy. Who knows, you might be playing in Worksop now, and you might wake up one day and find yourself in the next World Cup. Yes, Martin, but you probably have to be born somewhere like New Zealand to do it. It isn't entirely a meritocracy, you know.
Their qualifying group also took them a long way, but not to any footballing powerhouses. As Gary Lineker put it, they've played Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and I'm sure one of those is a volcano. I think he's referring to Vanuatu, which is in fact the island chain just east of the Solomons, that used to be known as the New Hebrides. Not traditionally the kind of game they clear the schedules for on Sky Sports One, anyway, although Keown did express an interest in covering the New Zealand away games next time round.
Incidentally, did you know some volcanic island chains are formed by continental drift? Get a piece of paper, and hold a pencil under it. Stick the pencil up through the paper, and observe the volcano shape. Now pull the pencil back down, move the paper slightly to symbolise tens of thousands of years (continental drift happens at roughly the speed fingernails grow), and repeat. After a few times, you have a volcanic island chain.
Yes, I know that isn't directly about the World Cup. I'm adding texture. Life isn't just about football, you know. God, you obsessives bore me.
Once past the volcanic island chains (you see? narrative thread), New Zealand had to play off against Asian qualifying runners up Bahrain. Bahrain had themselves seen off Saudi Arabia, who to be honest might have been rather tougher opposition, so we shouldn't kid ourselves the Kiwis will be there every time. Is it OK to call them the Kiwis? It's not actively pejorative, so I guess so. And it must be nice to have a defining national bird. You'd have to call us the Small Unremarkable Brown Birds that Cats Eat.
None of the New Zealand really play at the top level except Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn. They do have Chris Wood from West Brom, but Slovakia have a West Brom player too, Marek Cech, and he's one of their less senior players. They've got players like Martin Skrtel of Liverpool, and other similar talents. That's why they finished top of their qualifying group, ahead of Slovenia, Poland and, most satisfying for them, the Czech Republic. They were expected to do well.
It started slowly. Keown described it as almost like a testimonial game. Slovakia probably thought they had plenty of time (I accidentally typed Slovakia probably thought they had plenty of team, which also kind of works), while New Zealand were just happy to be there. Killen got the first two chances for New Zealand, but shot over the bar and headed straight at the keeper.
After that Slovakia dominated the first half, and the New Zealand keeper Paston struggled. First he missed a corner, and was lucky to see it bounce off Skrtel's head and over, then he slipped while clearing, gave it to Vittek and was lucky again to get a chance to knock the ball out for a corner. Finally he just left an easy ball, and was still luckier to see a defender hook it clear.
Three errors, and no goals conceded. Sometimes goalkeepers get lucky. Did you notice how many times I said lucky? That was to emphasise the element of luck with goalkeeping errors. You know what I'm talking about.
After fifty minutes Slovakia finally did score, and there was nothing Paston could have done about it (in fact he had a much better second half). Sestak fired in a cross, right in that danger zone just too high for the blocking defender, and Vittek got his head on it. It went straight in the bottom left, leaving Paston helpless. We all just assumed normal service had been resumed.
While New Zealand were still down, Strba started kicking them. He got away with the one on Killen, but when he scythed down Elliott from behind he was booked.
Slovakia kept up the attack using more conventional methods. Only Reid's desparate tackle stopped Vittek scoring, then something similar happened to Sestak after he'd been camped out in the New Zealand penalty area for what seemed an age, waiting for a bouncing ball to come down. Oh those balls, they sure are bouncing a lot. Kenneth Williams would have had an epiphany.
New Zealand didn't get so much as a shot in from half time until ten minutes before the end, and even then Fallon skied it. They did have a clear header a minute before full time, but Smeltz sent it wide. The unlucky minnows story arc seemed complete, that was the last minute fluffed chance you always get, now it was time for the whistle, and the full time recriminations.
And yet. Thirty seconds from the end of injury time Smeltz turned and hooked a cross back in. It fell perfectly on the head of Winston Reid, who turned it into the corner. One all.
The Slovaks couldn't believe it. They kicked off, but there was no time. They'd dropped two points to the narratively presumptuous minnows, and now Italy and Paraguay await them. There's gonna be some weeping and wailing on the streets of Bratislava tonight.
They might be a bit happier in Wellington and Auckland, though. First Australia get hammered, then they get a draw off a quality European team, with unheralded players and no real star names. We're happy too. The tournament needed a human interest story.