By Stuart Roach in South Africa

Not since Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest has New Zealand reached such heights; not since Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sung at a Royal Wedding has it hit such high notes (unless you count half of Crowded House); and not since Peter Jackson called 'wrap' on 11-times Oscar-winning movie Lord of the Rings has it boasted such blockbusting credits.

But on Thursday The Football League's Kiwi quartet of Chris Killen, Chris Wood, Rory Fallon and Tommy Smith can write their names into the New Zealand history books if they beat Paraguay in their final Group F match at this World Cup.

The Polokwane fixture marks the 750th match in the history of the World Cup, but only six of those will have featured New Zealand.

That a seventh is even being contemplated is a huge complement to the All Whites, who were written off as 2,000-1 World Cup outsiders after being grouped with world champions Italy, a Paraguay side that beat Brazil and Argentina on its way to qualification and an emerging Slovakian side spearheaded by Napoli's sought-after midfielder Marek Hamsik.

New Zealand only qualified by virtue of an Oceania/Asia play-off win over Bahrain and few All Whites fans making the trip to South Africa were worrying too much over accommodation in Durban or Pretoria for the third week of the tournament.

Even a first-ever World Cup finals point against the Slovaks, secured by defender Winston Reid's injury-time strike, failed to instil hopes of anything more than protected pride. "We won, one-one" one All Whites fan told me after the game, sounding a little like a hit record by The Crystals and betraying a feeling that even a draw felt like a victory to a nation whose footballers have always lived in the shadow of its World Cup-winning rugby stars.

But that all changed after New Zealand gallantly held an Italy side that had lifted the World Cup for a fourth time with a penalty shootout win over France in Germany four years ago - and now the All Whites know that victory over Paraguay on Friday would guarantee them a place in the last 16.

Even a draw might be enough to send New Zealand through, depending on the result of Italy's final group game with Slovakia, and West Bromwich Albion midfielder Wood admitted: "It all feels a bit unreal at the moment. The hype back home surrounding our World Cup campaign is huge, especially as rugby has dominated the Kiwi scene for so many years.

"Supporters have been going barmy at the fan parks at places like Wellington and my hometown Auckland," Wood told the Birmingham Post.

The teenage midfielder joined the Baggies from New Zealand side Waikato and enjoyed mainly cameo roles as he helped Roberto Di Matteo's side to promotion from the Championship last season. And his latest substitute's appearance was even more memorable as he came up against Italy's veteran defender Fabio Cannavaro on Sunday.

"It felt great to beat someone of Cannavaro's calibre on the biggest stage in the world," Wood said, his Freudian slip clearly underlining the New Zealand fan's theory of draws equaling victories.

Wood added: "I'm an 18-year-old new kid on the block and Cannavaro is a World Cup-winner. I'm absolutely buzzing - just to lead against the world champions was amazing."

Middlesbrough striker Chris Killen has started both group games and believes that the All Whites have been unfortunate not to have improved on their two-point haul so far. "A few decisions have gone against us but hopefully against Paraguay we'll get a few that will go for us. Hard luck can only be against you for so long."

Whatever happens on Friday, The Football League's Kiwi quartet have played their part in a campaign that already outstrips their only other finals appearance in Spain in 1982. Back then, the side including current coach Ricki Herbert were thrashed 4-0 by Brazil and 3-0 by the Soviet Union, as well suffering as a 5-2 mauling at the hands of Scotland.

But Herbert insists his current squad are a class apart from the side he played in and believes his All Whites may stand on the verge of something extra special.

"Anything is possible and we are doing okay for a team who some said should not be playing at the World Cup," he said. We are always daring to dream and we have already seen some strange results - but nothing as big as New Zealand holding Italy."

Herbert, known for his loyalty to a side performing well, is expected to keep with the same starting line-up and the same 5-2-3 formation that caused Italy so many problems when the game against Paraguay kicks off in Polokwane's Peter Mokaba Stadium.

That would mean starts for Killen, Ipswich defender Tommy Smith and Plymouth striker Rory Fallon, with Wood again expected to have to settle for a place on the bench.

They would all settle for a place in the history books.