The New Zealand players could hardly believe what had just happened. For 90 minutes, they had  battled bravely against the hosts  at the Petrovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, coming back from 2-0 down with a remarkable show of resilience and team spirit.

"We were so close to getting a draw," said Emma Humphries, scorer of the second New Zealand goal. However, just as their first point at a FIFA World Championship looked to be in the bag, Svetlana Akimova broke free in the 93rd minute to give the hosts a 3-2 win. As the home crowd went wild, the Kiwis fell to their knees in despair.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow when you can only stand on the touchline, helpless," grimaced coach  John Herdman . "We'd been working for this for nine months, and then in the blink of an eye, it was all gone. But that's football, and we'll learn our lesson from it."

Herdman had little time to wallow in self-pity as he set about lifting his team. Despite the Kiwis' battling and skilled performance, and having Alexandra Riley named Player of the Match, it was all to no avail. "I'm obviously proud of the award, but I'd rather have the three points, or even just one," said Riley. "We came so close, and the team is absolutely gutted."

This is the first time that New Zealand have qualified for a FIFA U-20 (formerly U-19) Women's World Championship, and many observers wrote them off as also-rans before the tournament had even begun. Yet, while this tag was seemingly justified by their  3-0 opening-day loss to Australia , against the hosts they proved they were made of sterner stuff.

When Russia raced into a 2-0 lead after just 14 minutes, it looked like another resounding defeat was on the cards. The Antipodeans were having none of it, however, and gave the hosts the fright of their football lives.

"In the dressing room at half-time, I could see it in their eyes that they had the courage and the belief to turn the game around," said Herdman. "We're only a small team on the world stage, but here we were clearly punching above our weight. The girls showed that they could compete at international level." 

Emerging talents
Although they still have a game left to play, New Zealand are already looking to see what lessons they can take from Russia 2006. "We couldn't have been drawn in a better group ," Herdman enthused. "Firstly the derby against our neighbours Australia, then the match against Russia, who are European champions. And now, of course, we get to take on Brazil - and it's everyone's dream to play the Brazilians.

"This is what it's all about - getting international experience. My players have grown up a lot during our time here in Russia. I hope that all the other teams now realise we can hold our own at this level."

While Emma Humphries, who a 20 is the oldest player in the team, will not be around when her team-mates play in the next FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship in two years time, there is  no shortage of young talent coming through the ranks . One such player is 15-year-old prodigy Annalie Longo, who came on in the second half against Russia.

"When you look at the quality of the players coming through, you can see that we'll be a force to be reckoned with," smiled Herdman. "The future's looking very rosy for football in New Zealand."

The country is already world-class when it comes to technical support for the players. Staff video-tape the matches from the stands, selecting the most important passages of play for analysis at half-time, using a laptop and a beamer to show exactly where mistakes were made. "We pick out four errors from the first half to show the girls and explain how to put things right," Herdman continued. "It's really useful in the development of young players."

Even though qualification is now beyond them, the New Zealanders are looking to finish the tournament on a high note against Brazil. "We don't need any extra motivation for this," laughed Herdman, secure in the knowledge that his charges are already up for the match.

"We need to pick ourselves up and not dwell on the defeat (against Russia). We'll play to the best of our abilities, so that we can be proud and satisfied with our overall performance at the tournament," said an optimistic Riley. "The Brazilians will know that they've been in a game."