|New Zealand highlights parity-filled first round|
|By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor|
|Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Finding 32 quality teams to fill out a World Cup field can sometimes be a difficult task, especially when soccer hotbeds like Europe and South America are limited to a certain number of teams.|
Often times it is the last few Asian qualifiers, or the final team from the CONCACAF region, that happens to slip into the field before being handed a swift return flight home.
Every World Cup has doormats who show up just to fill out the field and enjoy the experience, but the first World Cup to be staged in Africa has been surprisingly devoid of such teams.
North Korea's 7-0 loss to Portugal not withstanding, this summer's competition has seen a string of competitive games that have led to some pretty surprising results.
Spain suffered just its second loss in 49 matches when they were upset by Switzerland in their Group H opener, while mighty England was held to a 0-0 draw by Algeria of all teams, and now faces a must-win match against Slovenia.
But the game that has epitomized this World Cup to this point was New Zealand's stunning 1-1 draw with defending champions Italy.
The Kiwis are appearing in only their second World Cup, and most observers expected them to struggle just to score a goal, let alone compete for a spot in the knockout round.
Yet, after Winston Reid's stoppage-time equalizer helped New Zealand earn a 1-1 draw against Slovakia for their first-ever point in the World Cup, the All Whites pulled off the shocker of the tournament in holding Italy to a 1-1 draw.
It wasn't the prettiest match you will ever see, but it will go down as the biggest result ever achieved by the rugby-mad nation, which wasn't lost on captain Ryan Nelsen after the game.
"It perhaps wasn't the game of the century in terms of spectacle, but we showed an enormous amount of hunger and determination," Nelsen said. "It leaves me speechless when I think about what we've accomplished thanks to everyone's dedication to the team as a whole. We've given ourselves a chance of reaching the next round and that's an exciting challenge. All we can do now is give everything to seize that chance in the last match."
New Zealand is already playing with house money after they were regarded as probably the weakest team in the entire field.
A quick glance at the New Zealand roster reveals that two players on the 23- man team don't even play professionally with any club, while Nelsen, who plays for English Premiership side Blackburn Rovers, is the lone player to participate in one of Europe's top leagues.
The Italian roster, by contrast, is made up of players who play in Italy's Serie A, but they weren't good enough to overcome the tournament's feel-good story.
The fact that New Zealand can book a spot in the next round with a win over Paraguay is pretty amazing, but there are also a number of other unexpected developments to keep an eye on.
Argentina, the Netherlands and Brazil have so far done their part, topping their respective groups with two wins from two games, but the other five groups currently have an unexpected leader heading into the final round of matches.
Uruguay, Slovenia, Ghana, Paraguay and Chile can each call themselves group leaders, and although that could all change over the next week, it does underline the fact that parity is slowly becoming a bigger part of the game.
Nigeria, Cameroon and North Korea are the only three teams in the tournament to lose their first two matches, with Honduras potentially joining that list, while Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands and Chile are the only sides to start the tournament with two wins from two games.
France has completely fallen apart and looks set to be mercifully sent home after Tuesday's game with South Africa, but the wrong result could also eliminate teams like England, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Whenever the World Cup takes place outside of Europe, more upsets tend to surface, and this year's competition has been no different.
The underachieving favorites are more than capable of putting things right with wins in their final group-stage games, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that afterthoughts like New Zealand, Slovenia, Japan and others have made things much tougher than expected.