A goal by Rory Fallon just before halftime and some heroic goalkeeping by Mark Paston secured New Zealand’s ticket to next year’s World Cup as they squeezed past Bahrain 1-0 in Wellington on Saturday.
In a match billed as the biggest sporting event ever staged in New Zealand, the single goal broke the deadlock after the first leg of the Asia-Oceania final at Manama last month ended in a scoreless draw.
Bahrain’s best chance to equalise, a penalty early in the second half, went begging as Paston blocked Sayed Adnan’s shot. Before a crowd of 35,100 at Westpac Stadium, a record for a football match in a country obsessed with rugby union, New Zealand reached the World Cup finals for only the second time, after qualifying for Spain 28 years ago.
New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert, a member of the 1972 World Cup side, was ecstatic. “We’re back. We’re there. South Africa, here we are,” he said after giving Paston a congratulatory kiss, adding the team had done their preparation in the event of a penalty.
“We had done a little bit of homework and Pastie’s pulled one out of the top drawer,” he said. “He’s done a big one for us. We thought we could get through without conceding a goal. We thought one would do it and we’re there.”
Paston, who said it would probably take a few days for New Zealand’s success to fully sink in, described his penalty save as “a bit surreal, really”.
“I basically guessed which way and it ended up in my hands and I got up and went on with the game really.”
After dominating the goalless first encounter, where they missed two golden chances, Bahrain started the return match with the luxury of knowing a score draw would be enough to progress, and they attacked from the outset.
One snap shot from striker Jaycee John was forced away by a diving Paston, who was quickly on his feet to block the rebound. But after weathering the opening onslaught, the Ryan Nelsen-led Kiwis fought their way into the game. Leo Bertos and Celtic’s Chris Killen both hit the woodwork before Fallon headed home a Bertos corner in the 44th minute.