Although New Zealand will be competing in their first ever Men's Olympic Football tournament in Beijing next month, 'Oly-Whites' captain Steven Old will certainly not be over-awed by the occasion.
The confident, classy 22-year-old defender has not only garnered plenty of professional experience thanks to his stints in the Australian A-League with the Newcastle United Jets and the Wellington Phoenix, but he has been involved with the New Zealand national team setup for a very long time, despite his tender years.
Old, then aged only 17, took part in the Oly-Whites' previous Olympic qualifying campaign, when they lost out in a play-off to Australia for a place at Athens 2004, despite giving their big brothers from the north some awkward moments.
This time around, with Australia now competing in Asia, New Zealand were favoured to progress from the Oceania qualifiers. They did so in style, winning all five of their games in the qualifying tournament in Lautoka, Fiji. Not surprisingly, it was the tournament hosts who gave the Oly-Whites their toughest test, and it was only in the final minute of the game that a 1-1 deadlock was broken, by none other than Steven Old.
Old rates the current Oly-Whites, under coach Stu Jacobs, as even better than the class of 2004. "Both the teams had their own strengths. The last team had great morale, and of course I was a bit in awe of them at that age, but I think this [current] one has more depth," Old observed.
New Zealand have been drawn in one of the toughest opening-round groups in the men's competition, facing not only hosts China but South American powerhouses Brazil, as well as European hopefuls Belgium. "I can't think of a more difficult first-up opponent than the hosts," said Old. "Other than Brazil - and we play them next!"
"The Chinese will be up for it, the crowd will be their 12th man, no doubt."
Old believes that New Zealand will have weapons of their own to counter the home advantage of the Chinese and the sumptuous skills of the Brazilians. " ," Old explained. "We're going in how we want to go in."
After being released from Wellington Phoenix earlier this year, Old is currently keeping himself match-fit playing with the Macarthur Rams in the New South Wales Premier League, along with two Oly-White colleagues, striker Costa Barbarouses and goalkeeper Roy Bell. Yet Old's ambitions stretch beyond the confines of Australasia. He is keen on a move to Europe, and hopes that the Olympics will provide a shop window for himself and some of his colleagues. "There are quality players in the team who can make it to Europe," he said. "And they will make it, I believe."
An intriguing sub-plot to New Zealand's Olympic journey will involve their battle for bragging rights with Australia, the team that has so often denied them a place at the Olympics in the past. Australia have also been drawn in a tough group, alongside defending champions Argentina, and Old admitted that his side would be watching the progress of their old rivals with great interest. Many of the Oly-Whites ply their trade in Australia and know the 'Olyroos' well, and Stu Jacobs' men will be playing the Australians on 12 July in Sydney as part of their Olympic preparations.
"We really want to get one over them, however much we've been mates back here," laughed Old. "We're in the same boat, of course," he added, alluding to the two teams' underdog status in their respective groups.
Underdogs the Oly-Whites certainly are, but one wouldn't know it from Old's calm assessment of his team's chances.
"Once we know what to expect, once we get used to it, we won't struggle," he said.