There was a joint celebration at the Estadio Hidalgo in Pachuca on Saturday. Knowing a draw would see them both through, New Zealand and USA – neither one among the exclusive shortlist of the world’s football powers – made an unspoken pact. The ball went from left-back to centre-back to right-back, then a few passes forward, then back again to begin the cycle again.
A 0-0 draw was enough for passage from Group D. “We knew the draw was enough, so we just kept the ball for the last ten minutes or so, and so did they [USA],” said Kiwi captain Luke Adams after the game, still in his gleaming all-white kit as the wind picked up in the breezy Mexican state of Hidalgo. “It’s your normal instinct as a player to rush forward and try to win, but in situations like this you have to tell yourself to calm down and take the result.”
The last minutes were by no means a spectacle for the fans, who sat through another goalless draw earlier in day, that one ending in mutual heartbreak as it ended the campaigns of Rwanda and Canada. “It’s a bit weird to play for the draw, but we’ll take it,” said Adams, tall and rangy, the lynchpin of a lively and spirited New Zealand side who are keeping up a proud recent trend of improvement on the international scene for the small Oceanian nation.
Even before the senior All Whites made a splash at this summer’s FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, drawing all three of their group matches, the previous incarnation of this U-17 outfit reached the knockout stages of Nigeria 2009. The improvements in results speak to a real development in a nation not known for a devotion to football in the past.
“Things are changing in New Zealand,” said coach Aaron McFarland, who was an assistant coach two years ago in Nigeria. His captain is in wholehearted agreement. “People are really aware of football in New Zealand at the moment,” added Adams, who plays his club football, along with three of his national team-mates, for hometown side Waitakere United.
“The game is building back home,” he said as the winds picked up and the sun began to fall behind the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains that surround Pachuca, lending the city a sense of austerity.
Suddenly, a knowing smile crosses the youngster’s face, his eyes still bright and full of excitement from the day’s events. “But rugby is still our number-one sport,” he says with a rueful shake of the head. “I’m not really sure I can imagine a day when football takes over rugby as the top sport, but I really hope it does,” he added as USA’s players, who know all about soccer being a marginalised sport in their home nation, shuffled past, nodding heads in half recognition as only teenagers can do.
New Zealand’s next test comes in the form of a country where football is assuredly king, with some challenges from sumo wrestling and baseball. Japan are known as the Brazilians of Asia and won their difficult Group B handily in Monterrey with a stylish, short-passing game. “We can’t worry about our opponents,” said Adams, who admits he hopes to meet the host Mexicans somewhere along the line here at the U-17 finals. “We just have to focus on ourselves and the way we play football. We don’t have a lot of individual stars, but we’re committed to playing as a team, defending and attacking.”
While the captain points to defending, outstanding goalkeeper Scott Basalaj and cohesive play as his side’s main strength, he is also fully aware that in Stephen Carmichael, they have a top striker, his three goals against Uzbekistan in the opener was the first hat-trick bagged by a Kiwi in any FIFA finals competition.
But gone are the days of group stages with their second chances and speculation. “The knockout rounds are a different animal,” he said, his smile drifting into something resembling concern as he braced against the cool winds off the mountains. “You have no choice. You have to win the game because there is no tomorrow if you don’t.”