Of all the players on show at next month's FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, New Zealand's teenage striker Chris Wood will surely come close to being the tournament's most unlikely participant. The 17-year-old West Bromwich Albion striker has, after all, made just one appearance in senior football after an unexpected debut in the white-hot atmosphere of the English Premier League last month.
Although three starting appearances for New Zealand at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 provided the tall forward with some experience of international football, next month's showpiece in South Africa promises a different level of challenge altogether for the raw teenager. However, New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert has decided that age is no barrier, electing to fast-track Wood's international career by calling him into the Kiwis' squad.
An on-field appearance in South Africa will make Wood the youngest New Zealander to play at the FIFA Confederations Cup, with the Oceania nation entering the tournament for the third time after previous showings at Mexico 1999 and France 2003. The All Whites feature in Group A alongside European champions Spain, Asian title holders Iraq and hosts South Africa.
A tall and well-built targetman, Wood excelled this season in the WBA Academy team, scoring 14 goals prior to the end of March, before grabbing two in his first three appearances for the reserve team.
The real surprise came with a call-up to the senior team and a 15-minute cameo off the bench in WBA's match against Portsmouth. The debut saw Wood become just the fifth New Zealander to feature in the English Premier League behind Lee Norfolk, Danny Hay, Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott.
Elevation to the first team proved as much a surprise to Wood as it did to team staff at the Midlands club, who needed to print his name and a number on a shirt, just hours before kick-off. A month or so later, Wood awoke to another surprise when the call came advising of selection for South Africa.
"I only really thought I was an outside chance," said Wood. "I mean, a 17-year-old getting a full international cap would be amazing. Growing up, playing for your country is something every little kid dreams about."
Herbert is expected to make Wood's dream come true with a senior debut over the coming weeks as New Zealand complete preparations for their tilt at the FIFA Confederations Cup with international matches against Tanzania and Botswana, before a glamour contest against Italy four days prior to their opener against Spain. Though the All Whites are blessed in the forward line, with Celtic's Chris Killen set to partner Oceania and New Zealand player of the year Shane Smeltz, the shrewd Herbert remains confident of the youngster's potential.
"When I first took the job in 2005, I said age wasn't a barrier to selection, and that if we found a young guy we thought was good enough we'd put him in the team," Herbert said. "Right across the board there isn't anybody we've selected who we wouldn't consider ready for selection, and someone like Chris Wood is certainly going to add some pressure up front. He'll be pushing the likes of Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen and they'll need to be looking over their shoulders."
As Oceania champions, New Zealand are preparing for their FIFA World Cup™ play-off later this year against an Asian opponent, one which All Whites fans are desperately hoping will result in a second trip to South Africa next year. Chris Woods will certainly be hoping to be part of any return in 2010, and given his recent meteoric rise, who would bet against it.