July 2, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. -
With the World Cup pressing toward a conclusion, former Stanford star Simon Elliott now watches from afar, instead of on the South African pitch with his New Zealand teammates.
By most accounts, New Zealand exceeded expectations by scoring its first ever World Cup goals, tying defending champion Italy and going undefeated in group play (0-0-3).
But Elliott (Stanford class of '99) and his teammates fully expected to do well.
"We continually had to re-set (the fans') expectations," Elliott said. "People hadn't really realized that we had done well in warmup games and had a group of players that had been together for four or five years."
For many outsiders, their introduction to New Zealand soccer came during the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the All Whites went 0-2-1 and were outscored 7-1 while finishing last in their four-team group.
Elliott, now 33, and another former Stanford star, Ryan Nelsen of England's Blackburn Rovers, were on that Olympic team as one of the team's three overage players allowed in the otherwise under-23 tournament.
"The Olympics was a different kettle of fish," Elliott said. "At the 23-level in New Zealand, not as many people have a lot of professional experience. With the World Cup, we have quite a few guys that have a lot of high-level experience."
Still, New Zealand knew it couldn't match teams like Italy talent for talent, but found other ways to be effective.
"I don't think anyone was expecting us to be the most technical or skillful team," said Elliott, one of his country's greatest midfielders. "But we came and we played with passion, and that's what New Zealand fans expect."
New Zealand's greatest asset was its ability to defend as a team - allowing only one goal in the run of play -- and its' organization continued to frustrate opponents, even as the Kiwis were under a lot of pressure.
A lasting memory, though, will be the Italian penalty kick that tied their match, and the possible dive that led to the whistle. The call may have cost New Zealand a spot in the knockout stages.
"That particular incident was pretty soft, really," Elliott said. "There was some contact, but he goes down a little bit light after it. In Italy, that's how you play football. In New Zealand, that's not the way. We gave it everything we had, but it's not important to cry about it now."
Before the tournament, the players talked among themselves about the potential of going to the second round, showing a level of confidence even while commentators worldwide described the Italy draw as one of the great upsets in World Cup history.
"This is why we have games like this, to debate endlessly about upsets," Elliott said. "It was a nice bit of history and I'm delighted to be part of it. But we didn't gather just to be there. We tried to win and get to the second round. Sometimes, you get hamstrung by the limits of your own expectations."
Elliott hopes the team's success can lead to more interest and support in New Zealand, and perhaps some attention for himself as he seeks a club, having been released by the San Jose Earthquakes earlier this season.
"I'd like to keep playing," he said from his home in Los Angeles. "My body feels good."
Elliott played two seasons at Stanford after transferring from the University of Victoria in New Zealand, having been recruited by Stanford coach Bobby Clark, a fellow Kiwi.
Clark, who coached Stanford from 1996-2000, "has been a massive influence on myself and Ryan," Elliott said.
Elliott led the Cardinal to its first NCAA final, scoring a team-high 25 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 1998, before embarking on a nine-year career in Major League Soccer, which sandwiched a stint with Fulham in the English Premier League.
"I can't say enough good things about Stanford," said Elliott, a history major. "People worked so hard in the classroom that it created standards of excellence that even World Cup players have a hard time reaching."
But Elliott has achieved something that no other former Stanford student has, aside from Nelsen, and that's play in a World Cup.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics