New Zealand enjoy first World Cup in a generation

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

image captionPaul Robinson, 23, says NZ football needs money and infrastructure

New Zealand are playing in their first World Cup in 28 years, giving an estimated 150,000 sports-mad Kiwis living in the UK their first taste of the world's greatest show.

The Kiwis' opening game attracted an enthusiastic crowd in west London on Tuesday - but there was something missing.

There was no shortage of national flags on show at the Walkabout bar in Shepherd's Bush, and the South Island Speights beers flowed, but a more fundamental omission was at play.

Where was the tension behind the smiles? Where was the angst? And why did everyone look so, comparatively, relaxed?

A quick glance at the team's vital statistics hold some of the clues.

At 3,000-1 they started the tournament as rank outsiders, and have two players currently without a club and three with non-league experience in England.

Before their dramatic 1-1 draw against Slovakia, their best World Cup result was a 5-2 defeat by Scotland in 1982.

On top of that, their coach Ricki Herbert earns a reported £25,000 and doubles up as coach of A-League side Wellington Phoenix, compared to Fabio Capello's millions for England.

In short, expectations for the tournament are not high, so neither is the tension.

Coming from a nation of rugby fanatics where the exact opposite is true, that created a carefree mood amongst the fans.

After going behind against Slovakia just after half time, New Zealand never looked like winning, but their fans' heads never dropped.

image captionHarlyn Collins, 30, met his British fiancee Aime Jacques, 25, in Croatia

So when their team headed home a dramatic equaliser in the dying moments to earn their first ever World Cup points, the moment was as surprising as it was special.

Dean Courtney, 35, a DJ who was born in Auckland and still has family there, said: "We've already won the World Cup by qualifying.

"Drawing our first game is like winning it because we've beaten Australia [who lost their first game against Germany 4-0].

"We'll enjoy this moment for years, we'll drink and talk about this for years."

Harlyn Collins, 30, from Palmerston North on the North Island, said when it came to supporting his national side, there was no comparison between rugby and football.

"Regardless of the team, you still want to win... but it's totally different. Rugby is like a religion, football is like a hobby," he said.

"It's fantastic in a football mad country just knowing we're in the World Cup."

image captionDefender Winston Reid celebrates New Zealand's last-minute equaliser

Just in case there was any further need to draw a clear distinction between the two sports, the New Zealand football team is known as the All Whites, as opposed to the All Blacks.

The strip was originally based on England's shirts.

Mr Collins, a Tottenham fan who has lived in the UK for six years and works for the Crown Prosecution Service, said football was starting to get a higher profile back home.

Janine Brinsdon, from New Zealand News UK, a website for the expat community, agreed.

"The All Blacks have been at the top of their game for so long there appears to be a sense of openness to supporting a new sport," she said.

Many of the 200 or so fans who crowded into the bar popular with Southern Hemisphere nations, had taken a day off work.

Just a handful wore All Whites shirts sourced from websites or select shops, and those that did not complained of a shortage and wore their All Blacks strip instead.

With Italy and Paraguay also in New Zealand's group, Scott Ryan and his friend Ben Porter, both 24 and from Hamilton in the North Island, were realistic of their chances.

image captionScott Ryan and Ben Porter prefer football to their national sport of rugby

Mr Ryan, a builder, said: "I just want us to score goals. If we lose 4-1, I don't care, it's better than never scoring a goal."

Mr Porter, a plumber, said it was frustrating for the national football side to always be in rugby's shadow and to only attract a fraction of its funding.

The All Whites' path to the World Cup finals was considerably eased by Australia switching to Asian qualifying.

New Zealand then brushed aside their weaker Oceania rivals New Caledonia, Fiji, and Vanuatu before coming through a tough play-off against Bahrain last November.

Mr Ryan recalled: "It was unbelievable. I cried when we made it through, it was so emotional."

There were none of those emotions on show against Slovakia, but then results don't seem to matter so much now.

Ask any All Whites fan: it's the taking part that really counts.

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