Despite being considered rank outsiders going into Nigeria 2009, Oceania champions New Zealand earned a historic first-ever qualification for the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament to prove the doubters wrong in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Midfielder Jack Hobson-McVeigh ensured a 1-1 draw with Turkey, and the point needed for qualification, with an unforgettable long-range injury-time effort to score a spectacular goal worthy of its historic nature.
The scale of the breakthrough achievement is all the more considerable when one considers this is New Zealand's 16th FIFA tournament. The Young All Whites have come a long way in the 12 years since their first appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The New Zealanders still hold the unwanted record for the heaviest defeat at the tournament, a 13-0 loss to Spain at Egypt 1997, but the scale of improvement in little over a decade shows how far football in the Rugby-mad nation of some four million inhabitants has come.
One in a 100
Going into the final day of group matches yesterday in Calabar, the Kiwis knew a win would seal second, and that a draw might be enough for qualification. The equation though became clearer just prior to taking the field with news filtering through that the Netherlands had lost to Iran, meaning a draw would be sufficient. The players were just 90 minutes from history but standing in the way were group heavyweights Turkey who had impressed with strong wins in their first two outings.
As in the opening games, the Young All Whites conceded possession though many of their opponents strikes on goal were restricted to long-range efforts. Turkey held the lead from the 17-minute mark, and while both teams created openings, it seemed certain that New Zealand's bid to make history was doomed for an heroic failure. With just seconds remaining before elimination, up stepped Jack Hobson-McVeigh some 40 yards out from goal.
"The ball came to me I controlled it well enough, dropped my shoulder as a defender approached, took a touch and as soon as I hit the ball I just had this feeling that it's definitely going in," says the English-born, Auckland-raised midfielder. "If I take that shot 100 times, I'll never hit it that sweetly. I was celebrating before I saw the net bulge.
"Its great to be part of history, and the best feeling to score the goal. Everyone is still buzzing today. It was amazing at the end celebrating, with cameras there, it was like we had won the World Cup. But every game just gets bigger and bigger now."
Since that disastrous campaign 12 years ago, the FIFA U-17 World Cup has been kind to New Zealand. A first win at a FIFA tournament was achieved on home turf against Poland in 1999, while two years ago in Korea Republic, the Kiwis ran their opponents close in each match before going home empty-handed. Now, consecutive draws against Costa Rica and Burkina Faso set up the moment in Calabar that will go down in the annals of the game in the 'Land of the long white cloud.'
"With a few minutes to go it was the first time in six months that I thought we weren't qoing to qualify," says coach Steve Cain, before adding, "And I smack myself on the hand for thinking that! It just felt that it wasn't going to be our day, and that it would be a bridge too far. But I have to give credit to the team for backing ourselves.
"It's just brilliant; a first for our country and it's a real milestone," continues Cain from the side of the pool, where his young charges are relaxing after their exertions the previous night. "Now we need to make sure that we can make this the norm and not the exception. We're looking forward to playing a group winner. My boys will learn a lot from an occasion like that. And I'll tell you one other thing, whoever we play they won't have it easy. We won't lie down for anyone. We're ready."