Champions stunned as Smeltz's sweet strike turns world on its head

Italy 1 New Zealand 1
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The Independent Football

While the North Koreans were preparing to face Portugal in a rerun of the epic 1966 quarter-final, some Italian minds would have been racing back to the match that preceded it, when the unknowns from Pyongyang had dumped them out of the World Cup.

Had the Guatemalan referee, Carlos Batres, not noticed what seemed by today's standards not much of a tug on Daniele de Rossi's shirt from the Ipswich defender, Tommy Smith, that defeat by North Korea at Middlesbrough would now be erased as Italy's lowest point in the World Cup. Then the Italian side, who were pelted with rotten fruit by enraged supporters when they returned to Rome, could legitimately claim to know nothing about the Koreans, whose one-touch pass-and-move game was a revelation in England. However, this team had played New Zealand as recently as last June, when in a warm-up fixture for the Confederations Cup the Kiwis had somehow managed to score three times against the world champions in a 4-3 defeat.

This encounter in Nelspruit possessed a less dramatic scoreline but the result had far more of an impact. As the final whistle in the Mbombela Stadium neared, New Zealand's fans stripped to the waist like southern-hemisphere Geordies acclaimed perhaps the greatest result in their history.

"It is amazing," exclaimed Ryan Nelsen, captain of both Blackburn and New Zealand. "It wasn't pretty but we showed a ridiculous amount of determination. We are actually disappointed we drew 1-1. The decision to award the penalty was ridiculous but everyone put in a shift. It was the hardest work I have ever seen a group of players put in. We have given ourselves an opportunity to progress."

This has been a tournament which has tormented goalkeepers but Mark Paston's two full-stretch saves first from Riccardo Montolivo and then from Mauro Cameronesi kept New Zealand alive. Paston was once on Bradford and Walsall's books and his road to South Africa has been long and tortuous. He made his debut as a 20-year-old in a 5-0 humbling by Indonesia and did not play again for six years. But for a four-match ban given to the regular All-Whites' No 1, Glen Moss, for swearing at a referee, Paston might have got nowhere near being Ricki Herbert's first choice.

Brought into the side, he saved a penalty in New Zealand's play-off victory over Bahrain that took them to South Africa and recovered from a broken leg to make the final squad. Paston had no chance with Vincenzo Iaquinta's penalty but he has had a better tournament than Gianluigi Buffon, whose withdrawal with a back injury that may yet keep him out of the tournament handed the gloves of a world champion to Federico Marchetti.

Despite the talk from the Italian camp about how they knew New Zealand would be dangerous from set-pieces, it did not take Marchetti long to be beaten from one. The free-kick was delivered by Simon Elliott, brushed the head of Winston Reid, who had scored the equaliser against Slovakia,and then ricocheted off the chest of the considerably more famous Fabio Cannavaro. The ball fell to Shane Smeltz, who the year that Italy won the World Cup in Berlin was turning out for AFC Wimbledon in the Isthmian League. He stabbed the ball home.

For Herbert, who had been a player in New Zealand's first and until now only World Cup campaign, this was an afternoon that would have stretched every nerve and fulfilled every expectation.

In 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup,after qualifying from their group with three draws as unimpressive as anything they have managed in South Africa, Herbert was part of a side that was happy just to be there and who conceded 12 times to Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil. Much the same was said about them when they arrived at this World Cup but with Nelsen organising a passionate defence, they mostly kept the Italians at bay.

It would have been ridiculous to imagine they would not require luck. In the first half Montolivo sent a shot that curved inwards at the last minute and struck the foot of Paston's post while Nelsen threw himself in front of Gianluca Zambrotta's shot. Herbert was forced to withdraw Rory Fallon midway through the second half because he was in danger of getting himself sent off. He replaced him with the teenage Chris Wood, who right at the death was clear on goal with a chance for the win of a lifetime. His shot was measured well enough but scooted just past Marchetti's post. Back home, it was 3.30am.

"I don't know how many times I have to say this but the boys keep responding," Herbert said breathlessly. "I don't know how we'll do in our final game against Paraguay but, if we turn up, we will be bloody hard to beat. The nation will be going to round three with us."

How far behind Marcello Lippi's side the Italian nation is must be a questionable proposition. The result in Nelspruit confirmed what many suspected: that this is a team that cannot raise itself to retain its title. If the reaction in New Zealand was feverish you did not have to speak the language to understand the headline on Gazzetta dello Sport, the nation's leading sport's newspaper – "Flop Italia".

Italy (4-4-2): Marchetti; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Criscito; Marchisio (Pazzini, 61), De Rossi, Montolivo, Pepe (Camoranesi, 46); Di Natale, Gilardino (Di Natale, 46)

New Zealand (4-3-2-1): Paston; Reid, Nelsen, Vicelich (Christie, 80), Smith; Bertos, Elliott, Lockhead; Killen (Barron, 90), Smeltz; Fallon (Wood, 62)

Referee: C Buates (Guatemala)

Man of the match: Paston

Attendance: 38,229

Fans' network: Rival supporters around Britain give their views

Lee Green, 39, a lorry driver based in Coventry, originally from Whangarel: We're ecstatic after that result, it was an unbelievable display and a massive victory for New Zealand - that's how we're seeing it! We didn't realistically think we could do it, but, for 20 minutes, we were the holders! I didn't think it was a penalty - there was a bit of shirt-pulliing but how many times do you see that? Shane Smeltz was brilliant behind the forwards and Simon Elliott fantastic as well. We deserved to win, and Chris Wood should have scored at the end. The defence was fantastic and the goalkeeper, Mark Paston, was amazing. It was a great result for a country with no domestic league. It will be difficult against Paraguay on Thursday, as they are the best in the group. Whatever happens we can hold our heads up high. We watched the game in the garden with friends and family - we had a barbeque and everyone was in great spirits. I had my rugby shirt on and the flag flying above the garage. It was my dad's birthday, so we have had a double celebration. We have already taken loads of calls from friends and family back home, where everyone is going mad.

Interview by James Mariner