New Zealand travels to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria with a clear aim of creating a small slice of history for the local game. Never before has a New Zealand team reached the knockout stages at any FIFA tournament but Young All Whites coach Steve Cain and his charges are quietly aiming on being the generation to make the breakthrough.
The Young All Whites may have avoided some traditional heavyweights but still face a challenge in Group D, based in the southern city of Enugu. The Kiwis will open against Costa Rica, before taking on African qualifiers Burkina Faso and rounding out their group fixtures against Turkey.
"African teams have won it five times so on African soil I think Burkina Faso will be the team to watch in our pool. Turkey knocked out England in qualifying and have got the potential to go all the way in this World Cup, while Costa Rica's stock is rising quickly in world football and will no doubt bring a technically gifted team to the event."
Looking for history
New Zealand have competed at three previous FIFA U-17 World Cups, including the last tournament in Korea Republic, but have yet to progress beyond the group stage at any level. The Young All Whites debut in 1997 ended in disappointing manner with a record loss against Spain. Two years later as host nation proved a different story, but New Zealand again fell short of progressing despite recording the nation's first FIFA World Cup win with a 2-1 triumph over Poland. Two years ago the New Zealanders lost all three group games, including a slim 1-0 defeat against Korea DPR.
After the disappointment of the Under-20s side missing out on Egypt 2009, the nation's youngest national team have a steely resolve to create their own niche. "I said to this group from the start, we will be looking to be the first New Zealand team to qualify out of the group, so that is our stated ambition," says Cain, who is renowned in New Zealand for a strong coaching record on the domestic front.
"We are not going to make up the numbers, though we fully realise the extent of the challenge ahead of us. Each opponent will present their own challenge, but we will back ourselves. We are tactically strong, we have a few players capable of really making things happen and we back ourselves to get into the next stage."
Since the qualification campaign earlier this year the majority of the squad have been competing on a weekly basis in a regional Auckland league. The team spirit further enhanced with solid recent showings against local OFC O-League representatives Waitakere United and Auckland City. "The benefits (of the competition) have been to get the boys battle hardened in term of physical contests and also team strengthening so it has been a very useful exercise," says Cain.
New Zealand have just a handful of players at overseas clubs with midfielder Cameron Lindsay at Blackburn Rovers and forward Andrew Milne at Rangers. More recently flanker Michael Built joined Northampton Town and midfielder Jamie Doris linked with Scottish club Hibernian.
"We have had the advantage of keeping the squad together, except for a handful of players who are based in professional leagues," Cain continues. "Many other countries have the advantage of having their players in a professional environment, but we have the advantage of staying together and playing as a group, which obviously has its own advantages."
Striker Chris Wood, who has started to make waves with the senior national team and at his club West Bromwich Albion, is a graduate of the class of 2007 and is making the kind of impact which Cain hopes to see from the current squad. "One of our markers will be seeing players progress after the tournament," he says.
"We have some players capable of picking up a contract overseas after the tournament, similarly players looking to gain a USA university scholarship. In the next two or three years we would hope to see some of these players in the senior team, certainly the Olympic team, and then go about making a mark on the world stage."