Before Australia left OFC to join the Asian Football Confederation, beating the Socceroos used to be one of the biggest challenges in the Pacific.
But on July 14, 2002, New Zealand’s All Whites managed to edge their rivals from across the Tasman in the final of the OFC Nations Cup.
Played in New Zealand’s winter, the cool conditions suited the hosts and provided a less than desirable climate for the Pacific Island nations.
The 2002 tournament featured eight teams across two groups; Australia cruised through Group A without conceding a goal beating Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia in the process.
New Zealand topped Group B with one-sided victories over Tahiti, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
In the semi-finals things went up a notch as Tahiti led Australia 1-0 with only three minutes remaining.
That fixture was the early game in a doubleheader with New Zealand set to meet Vanuatu in the second final-four encounter.
All Whites captain Chris Zoricich said his squad arrived at the stadium in time to catch the end of Australia’s match.
With an upset looming, the Socceroos found an 88th-minute equaliser before they grabbed another goal in extra time to win 2-1.
“We were actually hoping they’d get knocked out in that semi but that gave them a bit of a scare and gave us some confidence,” Zoricich said this week as he cast his mind back 18 years.
New Zealand then beat Vanuatu 3-0 on the back of a double from Mark Burton to set up the trans-Tasman final in Auckland.
The match held great importance as the winner would advance to the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup in France, bringing a financial windfall to the victorious national body and players alike.
“I remember it well, actually. I know the Australians took us a little bit lightly, I think, as they had in the past as well, and I know they didn’t bring the big guns back to play against us, the likes of [Mark] Viduka and [Harry] Kewell,” Zoricich said.
“But they still had a decent side from what I remember so we had the bit between the teeth because we said right, if you’re not going to take us seriously we are going to go for it and hopefully get to the Confeds Cup again because a few of us had been to the ’99 one and knew how important it was going to that tournament.”
New Zealand brought a strong team to the OFC Nations Cup in 2002 with professionals from across the globe such as Ryan Nelsen, Simon Elliott and Chris Killen.
A number of the local players – think Chris Jackson, Paul Urlovic and Jeff Campbell – were members of the now-defunct Football Kingz in the old Australian National Soccer League (NSL).
“We had a strong squad and we were confident,” Zoricich said.
Having beaten Australia in the 1998 OFC Nations Cup before the Socceroos claimed the crown in 2000, the All Whites knew it would take a herculean effort to deliver another title.
The All Whites, coached by Mick Waitt, made the most of the opportunity and a goal from Nelsen in the 78th minute proved the difference as they won 1-0.
Zoricich was one of the heroes of the match, finishing the game with a bloodied nose following a collision with All Whites goalkeeper James Bannatyne as they were trying to make a clearance.
“I just had eyes for the ball. I guess he did too, but I reckon, deep down, he saw me there and thought this is a good opportunity to give me a whack as well,” Zoricich joked.
The custodian was substituted into the game in the second half following an injury to Jason Batty and said it was a bit of friendly fire with his mate known as ‘Zoro’.
“I was just performing what I thought was my role at the time, which was doing everything I could to ensure that the Australians wouldn’t get a goal against us and Zoro sort of got in the way and I made sure that if anyone got in the way they were going to get hurt and it just happened to be Zoro,” Bannatyne said with a grin as he reflected on the final.
Bannatyne collected three All Whites caps in a nine-year international career and this one was arguably the most memorable.
“I always look back on that day fondly; both from the experience as a goalkeeper to come on in a significant game when there’s a very nice financial purse up for grabs and you’re representing your country in a game that counts and you’re thrown in with 35 minutes to go and you’ve got a job to do.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty nervous but at the same time, really excited to make the contribution that I did to what was a really good team performance.”
Nearly 20 years on, Zoricich and Bannatyne work together coaching at the Western Springs club in Auckland.
Bannatyne also serves as OFC’s Goalkeeping Development Consultant.
New Zealand’s upset win spread to various corners of the football world and Zoricich said he later got a call from Andy Harper, a former NSL player who is now known for his television commentary in the A-League, after Harper opened a football magazine in Brazil to find a photo of Zoricich holding the OFC Nations Cup trophy.
New Zealand would go on to find things tough at the 2003 Confederations Cup as they were unable to grab a win in pool play and the landscape of OFC was changed forever when Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.