These Kiwi part-timers, considered rank outsiders in the Asia/Oceania qualifying section, kick-started their campaign with a shock 2-0 win over Australia in Sydney on 16 May 1981. But the final Asian group, in which New Zealand faced China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, was a true trip into the unknown.
After a controversial home loss to Kuwait and a frustrating draw at home with the Saudis, things looked grim for New Zealand. But one of the most remarkable results in FIFA World Cup qualifying history sparked the dream back into life.
Let’s revisit a memorable day in the Saudi capital.
19 December 1981, Malez Stadium, Riyadh
Saudi Arabia 0-5 New Zealand
Scorers: Wynton Rufer 16, 38, Brian Turner 17, 44pen., Steve Wooddin 39.
Saudi Arabia: Salim Marwam, Abdullah Al-Harby, Hussain Al-Beeshi, Hamid Sobhi, Mohammad Abdul-Jawad, Othman Marzouq Fairooz, Fahad Musaibeeh, Yusuf Khamees, Salih Al-Dosary, Majid Abdulla, Abdullah Ahed Faraj.
New Zealand: Richard Wilson, Glenn Dods, Ricki Herbert, Adrian Elrick, Allan Boath (Keith Mackay), Bobby Almond, Duncan Cole, Steve Sumner, Brian Turner (Sam Malcolmson), Steve Wooddin, Wynton Rufer.
For New Zealand, the situation could not have been any clearer. Two teams were to qualify from the final Asian group: before this, the final game in the section, they found themselves two points behind second-placed China. Not only would they need to beat the Saudis, but they would need to do so by a whopping six goals if they were to sneak ahead of the Chinese on goal difference, since only two points were awarded for a win at that time. It seemed an impossible task, and the Kiwis accordingly went into the game in a surprisingly relaxed frame of mind.
“Before the game, there was quite a light-hearted, jovial atmosphere in the dressing-room,” recalls New Zealand captain Steve Sumner. “The gaffer [coach John Adshead] just told us to play with dignity, and we could go home with our heads held high.” After the opening 45 minutes, the atmosphere would be quite different…
Saudi Arabia, bottom of the group, were already out of the reckoning. To make matters even worse for them, key defender and captain, Salih Al-Na’eema, was suspended for the game, and goalkeeper Salim Marwam was out of form. New Zealand scored their first goal after 16 minutes, through their young star Wynton Rufer. A minute later it was two, veteran marksman Brian Turner getting onto the scoresheet. Suddenly the belief in the All White ranks began to rise.
Rufer found the net again on 38 minutes, and elegant left-winger Steve Wooddin made it four straight afterwards. Incredibly, the Kiwis were now only a goal away from a playoff with China, and two goals away from instant qualification for the finals in Spain! On 44 minutes, the Saudi defence erred again, and New Zealand were awarded a penalty. Up stepped a buzzing Turner to take the kick. “Brian was shaking!” recalls Sumner with a laugh. “He couldn’t get the ball to sit on the [penalty] spot. He was so excited, the referee [Dutchman Charles Corver] had to tell him to calm down!”
Turner duly converted the spot-kick, and the All Whites went into the sheds with an amazing 5-0 lead. “By half-time, the realisation hit home that if we got one more, we were in,” says Sumner.
That realisation perhaps affected the Kiwis’ finishing abilities in the second period. “We had better chances in the second half than in the first!” laughs Sumner. “But it just wouldn’t go in.” The unfamiliar hard artificial surface was beginning to worry the Kiwis as well, with several players suffering from blisters and bleeding feet. With fifteen minutes to go, a Saudi breakaway nearly gave the home side a goal, and there was a collective decision to sit back and keep things tight in the Kiwi defence. “I decided that we’d done enough, it just didn’t feel like we were going to pick up that goal,” says Sumner.
Wynton Rufer would go on to fame and fortune in a distinguished European career with Werder Bremen, but the day’s honours belonged to Brian Turner, a long-standing, devoted servant of New Zealand football and three-time New Zealand Player of the Year. Fourteen years after making his international debut, he took responsibility for the 44th-minute penalty kick that sent New Zealand into their fateful play-off for the FIFA World Cup. Although he saw only a few minutes’ game time at the finals in Spain, New Zealand fans never forgot his contribution in getting them there.
What they said
“Leading up to the game, I remember having a chat with the guys, saying ‘We know we’ve got to get six to get through, but why can’t it happen to us?’ And on the day, things just clicked,” New Zealand captain Steve Sumner.
What happened next
The stage was now set for a play-off with China, to be held in neutral Singapore. Once again, the Kiwis were fast out of the blocks, going into a 2-0 lead with brilliant goals from Wooddin and Rufer. In front of a crowd of 60,000, the Chinese pulled one back, but Sumner and his men held on for a famous victory, and qualification for Spain 1982.
In the tournament itself, the New Zealanders found the might of Scotland, the USSR and Brazil too much for them, and lost all three of their opening round games. But no matter: the part-timers from Oceania had wrought an achievement of which their country remains proud to this day.
Story courtesy of FIFA.com