Story: Football

Page 3. Men’s international football

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By 2015 the New Zealand men’s team had played sides representing about 70 nations, reflecting the international nature of football.

Not so friendly

An English amateur XI put 12 goals past New Zealand twice during its tour here in 1937. In 1967 a full-strength Manchester United team, including celebrated players Bobby Charlton and George Best, scored an emphatic 11–0 victory in a ‘friendly’ at Christchurch’s English Park.

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, following up with another series victory on Australian soil the following winter.

This early supremacy over Australia did not last. By 2015 New Zealand had won only 13 times in 64 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.

At the same time New Zealand football’s best-known trans-Tasman success was its decisive 2–0 victory in Sydney in 1981, effectively qualifying the New Zealanders for the next round in the FIFA World Cup.

All Whites

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 this 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 and violent 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.

Record breakers

Ivan Vicelich, who played all three matches in South Africa, is New Zealand’s most-capped 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 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.

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.

In the final pool match a 0–0 draw against Paraguay 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.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson and Steve Watters, 'Football - Men’s international football', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2023)

Story by Neill Atkinson and Steve Watters, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 15 Jul 2016, updated 15 Sep 2016