New Zealand will of course be intent on making a statement on the pitch at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 but in some senses the Young All Whites already have done so off it. A glance at the background of many of the squad members reveals a changing demographic within the national team ranks, with a third of the squad of Maori or Pacific Islands background.
The FIFA U-17 World Cup has traditionally been relatively kind to the New Zealanders, who notched their only win at a FIFA men's tournament at the 1999 edition on home soil. Two years ago in the Korea Republic the Kiwis may have gone home without collecting a point but they showed enough to indicate the gap is quickly narrowing at this level. That fact was further in evidence on Sunday as the Kiwis drew 1-1 with Costa Rica in a strong showing which indicated that they will be more than just makeweights in Group D.
Changing of the guard
Historically there have been very few indigenous New Zealanders to reach the international level, with 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup squad member Heremaia 'Harry' Ngata a rare recent example. Ironically despite the paucity of numbers New Zealand's most well-know footballer Wynton Rufer is of Maori extraction on his mother's side.
The young brigade on display at Nigeria 2009 suggests the future of New Zealand football will wear a different face; a fact which Young All Whites coach Steve Cain says is a major positive. Six members of his squad have an indigenous background including the likes of midfielder Zane Sole, goalkeeper Coey Turipa and flanker Thomas Spragg, while striker Andrew Milne is part-Samoan.
"There is a real untapped market for us because mostly the Maori and Polynesian population tends to play big contact sports such as Rugby and perhaps Basketball," says Cain. "We are putting together probably the best youth development system of any sport program here and hopefully it will attract those kids into football. They bring athleticism and skill and mentally too they tend to be very strong. They are natural sportspeople. As soon as a couple of players succeed, then the other kids have a role-model and something to follow."
Young talent time
The draw against Los Ticos was the first point in the tournament for New Zealand since a win against Poland on home soil in 1999. The current generation are not satisfied with being also-rans and are intent becoming the first New Zealand side to reach the knockout stages of a FIFA men's tournament. Should they do so it will be no mean achievement for a nation that has won just one match in 28 outings on the world stage.
However, history does not weigh heavily on the current generation as indicated by Spragg's comments in reference to the upcoming challenge against Burkina Faso. "They press high and all over the pitch," he says. "While we need to treat them with respect there is not reason not to go into the game confident expecting three points."
Goalkeeper Turipa, who showed solid form when called into action against Costa Rica, is, like his colleagues proud of both his country and his bloodlines. "It is an honour being a Maori representing New Zealand and it is something I have dreamed about since I was I was a child," he states. "It is a great feeling when I go back to my home town of Nelson and a lot of the young players know who I am and look up to me."
Spragg concurs with the sentiments of his custodian and is similarly honoured to wear the national team jersey as an indigenous New Zealander. "I feel it is quite an important thing to be representing my country as a Maori. I hope more Maori players are inspired by seeing us play. I have two younger brother at home that look up to me so I hope I am doing them proud."