Led by Greensboro College Athletics Hall of Famer Ryan Nelsen, New Zealand earned a 1-1 draw with World Champion Italy on Sunday. Nelsen was credited for leading his team in its biggest international win.
While Nelsen’s team was out-shot 23-5, they held an early 1-0 lead. Italy tied the game in the 29th minute on a controversial penalty kick after it appeared an Italian player fell to earn the call.
The Kiwis are now 0-0-2 and tied for second in their group with the Italians. New Zealand faces group leader Paraguay on Thursday at 10 am. They can advance with a win and perhaps if they tie.
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Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro came into Sundayâ€™s World Cup clash against New Zealand with a reputation as one of the worldâ€™s great centre backs, but it was his opposite number Ryan Nelsen who stole the limelight.
While Cannavaro had a difficult afternoon at the heart of the Italian defence during the 1-1 draw, Nelsen was superb in the middle of New Zealandâ€™s. Even when his less experienced team mates looked ready to buckle in the face of intense Italian pressure, the 32-year-old stood strong.
Nelsen is one of the few New Zealanders to play regularly at the highest level in European club soccer, for Blackburn Rovers in the English premier league.
He said he had tried to use that experience to help the more junior members of the squad.
â€œThe rest of the team donâ€™t play against world class players so they donâ€™t see that they make a lot of mistakes too and that theyâ€™re very human,â€ Nelsen said after the match.
â€œThatâ€™s what I was trying to tell the boys. Most of our guys are better athletes and when youâ€™re a better athlete, youâ€™re stronger and faster and you can really do things.â€
Nelsen was shouting and gesturing at his fellow defenders throughout the game, marshalling them and organising them to combat the Italians.
He fell to the ground just a few minutes from the final whistle, suffering from cramp, put picked himself up to finish.
â€œEvery muscle in my legs cramped, I couldnâ€™t even move,â€ he said. â€œBut when youâ€™ve worked so hard for 85 minutes youâ€™re not going to give up in the last five minutes.â€
Nelsen has been part of the New Zealand set up for over a decade, having made his debut for the All Whites in 1999. He joined Blackburn on a free transfer in 2005 and has been a regular for the English side ever since.
He will lead New Zealand into their final group match against Paraguay in Polokwane on June 24, and said he expected soccer fans around the world to get behind his unfancied side.
â€œAround the world now, I think New Zealand are everyoneâ€™s second favourite team,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a real Cinderella story.
(Writing by Gideon Long; Editing by Nigel Hunt)