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About Those Kiwis...

I have to take issue with Zach's assessment last week that the World Cup has been "crap" so far. Sure, only 67 goals have been scored in 32 games. But two of them were scored by New Zealand.

I happen to be a Kiwi myself, and so it's possible that this means more to me than it does to any of you. To be honest, like most New Zealanders, I don't normally pay any attention to soccer. Rugby is the national religion—it dominates the culture in a way that reminds me, as one of the country's twelve non-fans, of those droning vuvuzelas. In fact, so passionate are New Zealanders about rugby that the sport provoked the country's worst outbreak of civil unrest in the past 50 years. In 1981, New Zealand rugby officials allowed the South African team to tour, in defiance of an international sporting boycott of the apartheid nation.  More than 150,000 people participated in protests and counter-protests that flared into violent clashes between rioters and police. The prime minister at the time backed the tour, under the logic that no political objection could possibly be important enough to interfere with enjoyment of the national sport.

So, that gives you some idea about rugby. Cricket, too, is popular. We're also pretty good at sailing. But for as long as I can remember, the All Whites have been more or less a non-entity. (Given the Cup’s South African setting, the name makes me cringe even more than usual, but it's a reference to the jerseys, not the players. It was coined to distinguish the soccer team from the rugby team, who wear black jerseys and are called the All Blacks. I guess All Whites seemed more concise than "those guys who play some sport that's not rugby.")

In any case, before the Cup started, New Zealanders were happy just to be there—it was, after all, only the second time they had qualified. "Even before the kick-off whistle blows…they have excelled themselves," declared an editorial in the country's major newspaper, the New Zealand Herald. “Their very presence in the tournament is a cause for considerable national pride.” An American friend of mine thought it was funny that Kiwi captain Ryan Nelsen had been quoted predicting a Brazil-England final without talking up his own team as a possible contender, but I figured he was just being sane. Kiwis are self-deprecating to a fault, but there was not a lot of false modesty in these low-ball assessments.

Still, it's amazing how rapidly New Zealanders have developed an enthusiasm for football once their team managed to get the ball in the net a couple of times. Last week, New Zealand scored a goal in the final seconds of its match against Slovakia—securing the All Whites their first ever World Cup point. Then, on Sunday, New Zealand—currently ranked 78th in the world by FIFA—held reigning champs Italy to an epic 1-1 draw. This was quite the upset considering that New Zealand has only 25 full-time professional players to Italy's 3,541 (the Kiwi coach even made a point of fielding Andy Barron, who works in a bank for a living, near the end of the game).

To judge from the response to the first two games back home, you'd think that the All Whites had won the Cup itself. The leading 6 p.m. news broadcast devoted its first thirteen minutes to the win over Slovakia. The prime minister showed up for the Italy match. Back in New Zealand, a rugby test match against Wales in the South Island city of Christchurch was shunted from the headlines by football news. One excitable sports writer proposed that if the All Whites beat Paraguay on Thursday to make it through to the second round, the whole team should get knighthoods. And if the All Whites can succeed in ending the All Blacks' longtime dominance of New Zealand's sporting culture, I might just have to agree with him.