New Zealand had entered the qualifying rounds for the three previous World Cup tournaments, but the team never came close to making the finals. Victories in friendly matches against Australia (1979) and Mexico (1980) suggested that New Zealand might finally have a side capable of taking on the best in Oceania and Asia. Coach John Adshead and his assistant, Kevin Fallon, brought together a talented, hard-working squad. It included the experienced Brian Turner, Bobby Almond and Adrian Elrick, former English professionals Steve Sumner and Steve Wooddin, and younger players such as Grant Turner, Keith Mackay, Duncan Cole, Glenn Dods and Ricki Herbert.
New Zealand’s long road to Spain began on Anzac Day 1981 with a hard-fought 3–3 draw with Australia at Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland. An easy win in Fiji was followed by a frustrating, scoreless draw on a sub-standard pitch in Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). The team then beat Indonesia 2–0 in front of an intimidating 100,000-plus crowd in Jakarta. On 16 May the New Zealanders faced Australia in the decisive match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. A first-half goal from Wooddin and a towering header from Grant Turner sealed a comprehensive victory.
Comfortable home wins over Indonesia, Taiwan and Fiji ensured New Zealand’s qualification for the next round at the expense of its trans-Tasman rival. In the last match, in August, New Zealand set a World Cup record by crushing Fiji 13–0, with captain Sumner scoring six goals. In their eight qualifying matches to date, the team had scored 31 goals and conceded just 3. With rugby’s reputation tarnished by that winter’s divisive Springbok tour, the All Whites – as they became known – were capturing the imagination of the sporting public.
But the road to Spain was about to get a whole lot tougher. New Zealand now entered the final Asian qualifying round with fellow group winners China, Saudi Arabia and a slick Kuwait side coached by Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira. Only two would qualify. The All Whites started confidently, holding China to a 0–0 draw at Beijing’s packed Workers’ Stadium. The team then beat the Chinese 1–0, thanks to a header from Herbert, in front of 28,000 fans at Mount Smart. Goalkeeper Richard Wilson completed his ninth consecutive match without conceding a goal, which was a World Cup record.
On 10 October, however, in front of an exuberant home crowd of more than 30,000, the All Whites slumped to a 2–1 defeat to Kuwait. The match was marred by controversial refereeing decisions and crowd disturbances, which briefly threatened to derail New Zealand’s campaign. A disappointing 2–2 home draw with Saudi Arabia the following month effectively meant the All Whites had to win their last two games in Kuwait City and Riyadh in December.
In Kuwait, goals from Sumner and teenager Wynton Rufer, the rising star of New Zealand football, looked to have secured a 2–1 victory. But the home team equalised in the last minute, seemingly dashing New Zealand’s World Cup hopes. The All Whites now faced the highly improbable task of beating Saudi Arabia by six goals in Riyadh to climb above China on goal difference. Playing in searing afternoon heat on a rock-hard artificial pitch, New Zealand swept to a stunning 5-0 lead by half-time, with the veteran Brian Turner holding his nerve to convert a vital penalty just before the break. Both sides had chances in the second spell, but there were no further goals.
With New Zealand and China equal on points and sharing the same goal difference, the two sides met in a playoff in neutral Singapore on 10 January 1982. The prize was the 24th, and last, spot in that year’s World Cup finals in Spain. Despite the sapping humidity and an overwhelmingly pro-Chinese crowd of 60,000, the All Whites went 2–0 up with spectacular goals from Wooddin and Rufer. China pulled one back but the New Zealanders held on for a famous victory. Qualification was a triumph in itself, but there was more to come. New Zealand was about to take its place on foobtall’s biggest stage.
The New Zealanders earned the nickname All Whites on the road to Spain because of the colour of their playing strip and the name’s obvious link to the famous All Blacks rugby brand. But in their first game, against Australia, the New Zealanders wore white shirts and black shorts, a combination the national football team had used for years. For their next match, in Fiji, they wore a light blue change strip to distinguish their uniform from the local team's.
The all-white uniform didn’t appear until the side reached Taiwan. It was then used for every match of the campaign, prompting media and fans to embrace the name All Whites. But it occasionally caused confusion overseas, where some thought the name had racist overtones – an unfortunate association at a time when the All Blacks had just completed their controversial series with the apartheid-era South African Springboks.