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Unbeaten New Zealand makes coach proud

POLOKWANE, South Africa (AP) — New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert has every reason to be proud of his team, despite its first-round elimination at the World Cup.

The All Whites remained unbeaten in three games and finished above defending champion Italy, but still saw their second visit to the World Cup come to an early end after a 0-0 draw with Paraguay on Thursday.

"There is no good way to leave the World Cup," before the final, Herbert said. "But leaving together with Italy and (2006 finalist) France can't be too bad."

Italy was also eliminated after losing to Slovakia 3-2 and finishing last in Group F.

The French went out after losses to Mexico and South Africa in Group A.

New Zealand players left the pitch at Peter Mokaba Stadium with their heads up high.

Disappointed? Yes. But also proud after finally making their mark in international soccer and earning their first World Cup points.

"It's quite emotional for us," said Herbert, who has guided the team since 2005 and was a member of the only other New Zealand squad to play at the World Cup. "It was our second time at the World Cup and to completely reverse what we've done before is quite amazing. The future looks bright for the team."

Herbert was a defender on the New Zealand squad which lost three times and was outscored 12-2 by Scotland, Soviet Union and Brazil at the 1982 World Cup.

Its main mission in South Africa was to put soccer back in the spotlight in New Zealand, where rugby is the national sport.

"We've created something huge," Herbert said. "The players stayed on the pitch today, absolutely thankful for all the support. So many people came out here and cheered for them, and millions have watched back home."

New Zealand started the competition ranked 78th, though Herbert said that "we are now a good shot to finish top-24 in the world."

The physically strong All Whites are known for their straightforward approach to the game.

Herbert is as down-to-earth as his players, avoiding the usual fuss around lineups. He announced his starting 11 for the important Paraguay game a day before the match, where many coaches stay quiet until two hours before kick-off.

"I am proud," Herbert said. "And no one takes away from me what we have done here."

Domestic media suggested that New Zealand's historic run at the World Cup earned Herbert several job offers from clubs around the world.

When asked for a reaction, Herbert answered: "My own future? Five days holiday in Hong Kong!"

He declined to comment on a report in Wellington's Dominion-Post newspaper saying that Herbert, reportedly the lowest-paid manager at the World Cup, could be in for a substantial pay rise.

According to the newspaper, Herbert earns about NZ$50,000 (euro28,000, US$35,000) a year for coaching the All Whites, a figure which pales against the seven-figure salaries of his famous rivals.

"They are no different to me, but they're getting $1.5m and will get no points," he said.

Herbert earns an additional NZ$200,000 (US$140,000) per year for coaching the Wellington Phoenix in Australian soccer's A-League.

Officials of the New Zealand soccer federation have indicated they would hold talks with the 49-year-old Herbert in the hope of retaining him as national coach.