Time to salute the mighty minnows

The World Cup will be given away only on July 11, but a few winners have already emerged. Spare a thought for the minnows who have won plenty of hearts, if not silverware, for their gutsy performances in the group stage.

The World Cup is not for the big boys alone. Slovenia and New Zealand are heading home with their heads held high. Bouquets await the two at the arrival lounge of their respective airports. The cup romance of the minnows has charmed neutrals here.
The French who have enhanced their ‘reputation’ as perennial mutineers with a blockbuster show of petulance in South Africa can learn a few lessons from the so-called small nations. Not every team returns home from the World Cup in a blaze of glory. But the manner of going out matters. The Slovenians and the Kiwis have been defeated, but not disgraced. The number of professional players in New Zealand can be useful in putting their unbeaten record here in perspective. All Whites coach Ricki Herbert only had 25 professionals to choose his 23-member World Cup squad from.
He even drafted in an amateur, Andy Barron, to plug the hole left by a professional. Barron is a bank officer who occasionally plays football in a country where rugby is a religion. Brazil’s pro count is 16,000 and counting. Herbert was emotional after his side fell agonisingly short of sealing a place in last 16 on Thursday. He called his team’s unbeaten run a dream. “No one is prouder than me. A lot of people thought we shouldn’t even have been here,” he said. New Zealand, ranked 78 in the world, finished above Italy, four-time winners of the World Cup, in Group F.
Slovenia did even better. Despite losing to England in their final pool match, they were still seconds away from progressing as runners-up in Group C. But Landon Donovan’s last-ditch winner against Algeria at Pretoria crushed the dreams of the tiny Balkan nation, once a part of Yugoslavia.
It was a wrench to see the crestfallen Slovenians amble around the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium at Port Elizabeth after the news of a late US winner trickled in. The population of Slovenia is 2.1 million, which is roughly equivalent to the headcount at Mumbai’s CST in a week.

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