New Zealand beats Bahrain to qualify for World Cup

Rory Fallon headed in the lone goal in the 44th minute to give New Zealand a 1-0 win over Bahrain and its first World Cup berth in 27 years.

Fallon, an England youth international, headed Leo Bertos corner past Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Jafaar on Saturday for the only goal of the home-and-away qualifying series. The first leg in Bahrain ended in a scoreless draw.

Fallon was denied moments before scoring when a header attempt, with only the goalkeeper to beat, was miraculously saved by Jafaar.

“I was just praying that wasn’t my last chance,” Fallon said. “Then Leon put in a great ball and with those I don’t miss.”

Sayed Adnan had the chance to equalize in the 50th minute – and put Bahrain through to its first ever World Cup on away goals – after New Zealand conceded a free kick when Tony Lochhead brought down Abdulla Omar in the area

New Zealand keeper Mark Paston anticipated Adnan’s shot and fell on the ball, thrilling the crowd of 35,000 – the largest ever for a football match in New Zealand.

“I basically just guessed which way he’d go and the ball ended up in my hands,” Paston said. “It’s a bit surreal really.”

Paston, playing on the home ground of his Wellington Phoenix A-League club side, was one of New Zealand’s heroes Saturday, along with Fallon, Bertos, midfielder Tim Brown and Glasgow Celtic striker Chris Killen, formerly from Wellington.

“I knew this was going to be won by the local (Wellington) lads. Brown, Paston and Bertos were fantastic,” New Zealand captain and Blackburn Rovers defender Ryan Nelsen said.

“The crowd was incredible and I don’t know if we could have won it without them. They were our 12th man today and they got us home,” Nelsen said. “I’ve played in some incredible atmospheres but this is right up there.”

World Cup Teams

New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert was a defender in the New Zealand team that last reached the World Cup at Spain in 1982.

“I’m speechless,” Herbert said. “This group of players has given everything to achieve this dream, everything over the last four years. It’s incredible. We’re back. We’re there. South Africa.”

Saturday’s match was played in gale force winds and bitter cold, which suited New Zealand’s principally aerial game. Bahrain outpaced the Kiwis and was always dangerous on the counterattack but New Zealand was similarly threatening from set pieces.

After an early shot from Salman Essa went narrowly wide of the left post, New Zealand began to build concerted pressure on the Bahrain goal. Ben Signmund headed over the bar from a free kick in the eighth minute then Killen rattled the crossbar from a turning, left-footed shot in the 19th.

Paston twice pulled off desperate saves in the 33rd before Fallon headed the winner.

Striker Shane Smeltz, another Wellingtonian player now based on Australia’s Gold Coast, had a chance to seal the victory in the second minute of injury time but his angled right-foot shot dribbled wide of the left post.

Bahrain was forced the relive the bitter disappointment of its 2006 qualifying campaign when it was beaten in a playoff by Trinidad and Tobago.

Oceania champion New Zealand now progresses to South Africa as possibly the first team in Cup history to reach the finals without beating a country with a population of more than 1 million.

It’s largest opponent in the Oceania confederation was Fiji (850,000) and it moved on to a two-leg clash with Bahrain (750,000), which finished fifth in Asian regional qualifying.