RUSTENBURG // Ricki Herbert leads his New Zealand side into their opening Group F match against Slovakia today filled with confidence and hoping to erase painful memories of the 1982 tournament in Spain. As a 21-year-old defender in New Zealand's only previous World Cup appearance, he burst into tears on the bus en route to their opener when he was left out of the side to face Scotland.
It was the biggest disappointment of his playing career and a spur to him now as the coach to inspire his players to belie a world ranking of 78 by upsetting Slovakia, ranked 38. "I understand why we are the underdogs but we don't fear anyone," he said. "Anything can happen in a cup competition. If Senegal can beat France [in 2002], we can beat Italy!" Herbert's confidence may be one of New Zealand's best weapons as he tries to inspire a team, well beaten three times in South Africa during last year's Confederations Cup, to rise to their biggest challenge in three decades.
Their mixed form in warm-up games - beating Serbia and then losing to Chile - has given little indication of what to expect against an equally unsung Slovakia, making their first appearance in the finals as an independent nation. The Slovaks proved their potential when they beat the Czech Republic 2-1 away in the qualifiers. Stanislav Sestak, who scored in both games against their local rivals, is a striker who gives them a cutting edge.
Vladimir Weiss, the Slovakia coach, shares Herbert's rare distinction of playing and coaching at the World Cup, having appeared in midfield for the Czechoslovakia team that reached the quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. He is also hoping his team can be one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Weiss and his men recognise that today's clash will be key in a group that also includes Italy, the world champions, and Paraguay.
Jan Mucha, the goalkeeper who was outstanding in the qualifiers, said: "We are a new team, we want to surprise everyone." Marek Hamsik, the midfielder and captain, added: "The most important match is against New Zealand, the first. They are strong - we saw that in their warm-up against Serbia." Ryan Nelson, the New Zealand captain, missed that game with an infection but returns against Slovakia. But Tim Brown, the vice-captain, has lost a race to be fit to face Slovakia, but should be ready for the next two Group F games, Herbert said yesterday.
Midfielder Brown only arrived in South Africa last week after surgery to fix a shoulder broken in the warm-up against Australia and was always doubtful for today's match. "(Brown) came up a fraction short but hopefully he will be fit for the Italy and Paraguay games," Herbert told reporters in Rustenburg ahead of the opener against Slovakia. Martin Skrtel, Slovakia's experienced defender, and Miroslav Stoch, a 20-year-old midfielder, will be fit for Weiss's expected 4-4-2 line-up after recovering from injuries.