While announcers on ESPN waxed and waned about New Zealand’s accomplishment, Italy’s failing in the Kiwi’s 1-1 Sunday draw with the defending champions, the coverage team seemed to lose sense of time, space – context – of this result.
Shane Smeltz put New Zealand ahead in the seventh minute, converting a set piece, and Vincenzo Iaquinta equalized in the 29th minute from the spot to cap the scoring. Over the next hour, Italy would dominate possession and shot statistics but leave the threatening chances to Ivan Vicelich and Chris Wood. The match ended drawn, and when it did the coverage started playing-up the impossible nature of the result.
Impossible is my word, not theirs. It’s just the feeling I got from the tones of Ian Darke, Ally McCoist, and Bob Ley. New Zealand drawing Italy is a huge upset, they tell us, and maybe it was because the same people who served us that post-match reaction crafter the pre-match expectations, those of an Italy team who would walk through New Zealand. McCoist even called the draw a bigger surprise than Switzerland beating a European Champion-side who have only been beaten once in the preceding 48 matches.
Perhaps this judgement reflects Switzerland’s geography more than New Zealand’s perceived talent.
Had this result happened last week, in the first round of the tournament, then such reactions would be a little more justifiable. I also didn’t give New Zealand much of a chance in this tournament, having only seen them play against the like of Bahrain in competitive matches during this qualifying cycle. However, after Group F’s first matches – seeing New Zealand play well against Slovakia and Italy unable to manufacture scoring chances against Paraguay – it was no stretch to suggest New Zealand could get a result.
And that is exactly what happened, and although it is the best result in New Zealand soccer history, it should not be the earth-shaking event for the sport that it’s being portrayed to be. Perhaps that hyperbole was for entertainment value, but perhaps it was patronizing an audience that expects the coverage to exalt the virtues of the traditional powers. If anything, after ten days of a World Cup that has shown the accessibility of traditional powers like Brazil (vs. North Korea), Germany (vs. Ghana), Spain, the Netherlands (vs. Denmark, Japan), England (vs. the United States, Algeria), France (vs. Uruguay, Mexico) and even Italy (vs. Paraguay), this result should be discussed in terms of the rule, not the exception.
And as noted on the broadcast, this traditional power has not won a match in 2010. They have struggled since qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, and a series of players (Cannavoro, Zambrotta, Iaquinta, amongst others) have had indifferent club seasons. The Azzurri were also missing Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.
There is a way to play-up this result without being trite (and inaccurate) by persisting with the insistence that Italy was performing like a top team. Speak to the Azzurri legacy, contrast that with New Zealand’s thin international soccer history book, and use that information to augment the in-the-moment story lines: New Zealand continues to be better than thought while Italy persists with the problems we’ve seen for years, reflecting a soccer world where the minnows are taking bites out of the powers.
That is, after all, what happened today.