WELLINGTON: New Zealanders` disappointment as the All Whites bowed out of the World Cup was quickly overtaken by pride Friday as their unfancied team ended the competition unbeaten.
The World Cup minnows` scoreless draw with Paraguay in their final pool match followed draws with Slovakia and reigning world champions Italy, who were the other Group F team to be knocked out in the round robin stage.
Thousands packed into bars across the country to watch the crucial match despite the 2:00 am (1400 GMT Thursday) start, while many others got up from their beds to watch the game at home.
The New Zealand Herald newspaper summed up the feeling after the 0-0 draw with a special edition headline which simply read: "Unbeaten, unbowed."
Another headline from The Press read: "Undefeated but its time for our heroes to come home."
Fans were full of pride about the team`s achievements.
"It`s amazing, we didn`t lose, it`s the best we could ever hope for," said one fan in Wellington who watched the match in a central city bar.
"It`s been a magical journey and we are so happy to be part of it. We`ll welcome the boys home with open arms," said another.
Prime Minister John Key said the All Whites would be treated as heroes when they returned.
"If you were to look back on the campaign, you would have to be the bravest of souls that would have predicted they would have got a draw in every game... and that they would have ended the table ahead of Italy."
"The country has been engulfed in a World Cup fever and All Whites fever and that`s going to bubble over when they come back to the country, so they will come back as champions," Key told Radio New Zealand.
John Adshead, the coach of the 1982 All Whites -- the only other New Zealand team to make the World Cup finals -- said the achievements of the world`s 78th ranked team were of "epic proportions".
"I think it`s just been totally, totally unbelievable. As every minute ticked by and nobody could score goals against us, I`ve been totally amazed," he said.
Richie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks rugby team, New Zealand`s traditional national sporting heroes, described the All Whites` performance as "amazing" and said the footballers had every reason to be pleased with themselves.
"I think from everyone who`s a Kiwi looking at what they`ve done is pretty awesome," McCaw said.
"If anyone had said a month ago that they`re going to be unbeaten -- I know they haven`t gone through -- but it`s a pretty amazing performance really."
The Herald said the All Whites had made the country proud and had excited New Zealanders` imaginations.
"They may have changed the face of New Zealand sport and given us all a wonderful ride and new heroes to admire," the newspaper`s sports columnist Chris Rattue said.
Paul Thompson of Fairfax Media said any sense of disappointment about the failure to go through to the knockout round showed how much expectations had been raised by coach Ricki Herbert`s team.
"In securing three draws in what proved to be highly competitive group, they have reshaped how the world views New Zealand football," Thompson said.
"In June 2010 in South Africa the All Whites, and the country, learned that we are a footballing nation."
BDST: 1214hrs, June 25, 2010