By 2023 the New Zealand men’s team had played sides representing more than 70 nations, reflecting the international nature of football. It was ranked just outside the top 100 countries in the world.
New Zealand versus Australia
The first foray into international men’s football was against New South Wales at Dunedin’s Caledonian Ground on 23 July 1904. The first full internationals were played in 1922, when New Zealand defeated Australia in a three-match series before achieving another series victory on Australian soil the following winter.
This early supremacy over Australia did not last. By 2022 New Zealand had won only 13 times in 66 matches. New Zealand’s 10–0 defeat at the Basin Reserve in Wellington in 1936 remained the country’s heaviest loss in a full international.
New Zealand football’s best-known trans-Tasman success was its decisive 2–0 victory in Sydney in 1981, which effectively qualified the New Zealanders for the next round in the FIFA World Cup.
While black is acknowledged as the main colour for New Zealand sports teams, the football team adopted an all-white playing strip during the qualification campaign for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. A play on the more famous All Blacks title saw them nicknamed the ‘All Whites’, and the name stuck.
FIFA World Cup, 1982
After failing to qualify for the previous three tournaments, New Zealand achieved its first appearance in the World Cup finals in Spain in 1982. The exploits of this team, dubbed ‘the All Whites’, earned them a place in New Zealand sporting history.
The many twists and turns during an epic qualifying schedule of 15 games at venues stretching halfway across the globe captured the hearts of Kiwi sports fans. A number of the key games were played against the backdrop of the controversial Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand, and this allowed football to outshine rugby for the first time. The All Whites qualified for the finals when they won a dramatic 2–1 victory over China in a sudden-death play-off in Singapore.
In Spain the All Whites were given little hope in a pool that included cup favourites Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland. The Scots got a fright when New Zealand pulled back two goals after trailing 3–0 before eventually winning 5–2. The team also performed with credit in defeats to the Soviet Union (3–0) and Brazil (4–0).
It would be 28 years before New Zealand again appeared at the World Cup finals.
FIFA World Cup, 2010
Qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was made somewhat easier by Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006. To grab the last qualifying spot, New Zealand had to face Bahrain (the fifth-placed team from Asia) at home and away.
Following a 0–0 draw in the away leg, New Zealand won a dramatic home match 1–0 thanks to a powerful Rory Fallon header and a penalty save by goalkeeper Mark Paston. The final whistle sparked scenes of wild jubilation among the capacity Wellington crowd, the like of which had never been seen at a football match in this country.
In South Africa a stoppage-time equaliser from Winston Reid in the first game against Slovakia set the scene for a memorable tournament. In the second game New Zealand took a shock 1–0 lead against defending world champions Italy, courtesy of a Shane Smeltz strike. The match ended in a 1–1 draw.
A 0–0 draw against Paraguay in the final pool match was not enough to see the All Whites through to the second round of the competition. However, they left South Africa as the tournament’s only undefeated team.
Ivan Vicelich, who played all three matches in South Africa in 2010, is New Zealand’s most-capped male player with 88 appearances. With two goals against Papua New Guinea in a World Cup qualifying tournament, Chris Wood became New Zealand’s all-time leading male football scorer in 2022. His goals – the 29th and 30th of his international career – saw the striker edge past Vaughan Coveney’s previous record of 29 goals scored between 1992 and 2006.
FIFA Under-20 World Cup
In 2015, New Zealand hosted the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for men. Twenty-four teams played a total of 52 matches in seven host cities: Whangārei, Auckland, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
On the field, New Zealand made it out of the group stage to the round of 16, losing to Portugal 2–1 in front of nearly 11,000 fans in Hamilton in very wet conditions. They reached the same round in the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, 2019 (losing on penalties to Colombia) and 2023.
New Zealand has reached the round of 16 three times in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for men, in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Many of these players graduated to one of the successful under-20 teams.
Men’s football has been contested at every summer Olympics except 1896 and 1932. Most team members are aged under 23, with three older players allowed in each squad. The intention is to differentiate the Olympic tournament from FIFA competitions and to enable the participation of amateur players.
New Zealand first attempted to qualify for the Olympics in 1984 and succeeded in 2008, 2012 and 2020. The 2020 team was eliminated on penalties in the quarter-finals and was ranked sixth.
New Zealand has produced a number of FIFA-accredited referees who have officiated at international tournaments.
Matthew Conger has been a FIFA-accredited referee since 2013. He refereed at the 2015 and 2017 Under-20 World Cups, the 2016 Olympic Games, and the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. Matthew regularly referees in the A-League Men and in New Zealand Football and Oceania Football Confederation matches.