New Zealand went out of the World Cup yesterday with a pair of wonderful consolation prizes – they were unbeaten in three games and finished above the defending world champions Italy in their group.
The All Whites did not manage to produce a single effort on target in a dull 90 minutes against Paraguay, who ended up topping Group F. Yet New Zealand will leave South Africa with a better record than Italy, having drawn all three of their group games.
The New Zealand coach, Ricki Herbert, had goalkeeper Mark Paston to thank again, after the 33-year-old pulled off three top-class saves to keep out Paraguay. Paston has worked hard for his moment of fame, in a career that began with a 5-0 thrashing by Indonesia on his international debut in 1997, and has taken him to brief spells with Walsall, Bradford City and St Johnstone. He even took a year off from football to work for a recruitment company in London in between clubs.
Paston, however, was outstanding as Paraguay, who needed only a draw to progress, went through the motions of trying to score. His best save was a point-blank reaction parry to keep out a header from Sunderland's new signing Cristian Riveros in the 62nd minute, but Paston also managed to stop a long-range free-kick by the Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz and a dipping attempt by substitute Edgar Benitez.
New Zealand, wearing an all black outfit more commonly associated with the national rugby team, rarely threatened the Paraguay goal. Instead the South Americans dominated possession, but found it hard to penetrate the massed ranks of the Kiwis. All too often Paraguay would start to build something promising, only to try a long-range effort that flew harmlessly over the bar.
New Zealand tried to force themselves to make one final push in the last 10 minutes but after their heroic defensive performances of the past fortnight there was nothing left in the tank.
The result left Paraguay on top of Group F. Gerardo Martino's side can and must play much better than this, however, in Durban on Monday.
Paraguay (4-3-3): Villar; Caniza, J Caceres, Da Silva, Morel; Riveros, J Caceres, Vera; Santa Cruz, Cardozo (Barrios 66), Valdez (Benitez 66).
New Zealand (3-4-3): Paston; Ried, Nelsen, Smith; Bertos, Vicelich, Elliott, Lochhead; Killen (Brockie 79), Fallon (Wood 69), Smeltz.
Referee Y Nishimura (Japan).
Man of the match Paston.