New Zealand, thrust into the default position of
Oceania's big guns following the departure of Australia for
Asian shores, will be keen to show more than just their native
brawn and grit at this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada .
Head coach Stu Jacobs, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com following the tournament's official draw in Toronto in early March, described his side's hopes and fears heading into a first-ever appearance at the world youth showpiece. And if the former All White international's confidence is anything to go by ahead of New Zealand's maiden voyage, Group C's other denizens will do well to beware the OFC champions and their star striker Chris James of Fulham FC .
"I think we can surprise some people," the coach told FIFA.com over a cup of coffee in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, just 24 hours after learning that his young hopefuls and self-proclaimed 'underdogs' will have to navigate a group also containing Mexico (defending U-17 world champions), two-time U-20 world beaters Portugal and tricky African reps Gambia.
"Physically, we are strong. The bulk of the boys are very good athletes. So I guess we base our game around that side of things - working hard, getting stuck in and running our opponents off the park," Jacobs, who is also the country's Olympic coach, remarked. "But we've got impressive ability through the side too. When you look at the likes of Chris James playing for Fulham over in England, two or three boys playing in the States on University scholarships and a few playing in the A-league in Australia, we have a team that can play football as well. We're not just a rugby team!"
After a bumpy start to the South Seas qualifying campaign back in January, The Kiwis confirmed their status as top dogs with a first-place finish - four full points ahead of runners-up Fiji. But Jacobs is quick not to let the overall success go to the boys' heads.
"With Australia gone from Oceania, it makes us the team to beat," he admitted. "But as you can tell by our qualifying process, there aren't too many easy beats any more. You may find one or two that you can roll over, but the likes of Fiji and the Solomons are getting better all the time. They're employing foreign coaches and getting better at a rapid rate."
Group of Death?
Despite a healthy confidence heading into his first world finals, the coach is quick to point out just how difficult it will be to get out of arguably the toughest of the tournament's groups. "We're underdogs, there's no doubt about it," he said. "People can relate to the Portugals of the world and most people know that Mexico won the last U-17 World Championship , and this squad will be made up of largely those same players. We have to find a way to stand up to those big names and make a mark. All of the groups are tough, but we'll have to work hard to get out of ours."
A recent trip to South east Asia and some approaching friendlies may hold the key for the Kiwis, according to the boss man. "We'll do their best to stand with the likes of (Mexico stars) Dos Santos and Vela. We took the side to Vietnam for a tournament back in November and also played the Thai national team. They were technically very good and very quick, and our guys coped well. Running into the finals we have a lot of fixtures lined up and they're all important games for us because we don't get a great deal of international competition down in New Zealand. We've got (friendlies against) Uruguay, Costa Rica and Panama and these will be important games to show us where we are coming into Canada."
In all, the boss' goals are about small, manageable steps - and dreams of a championship medal are a long way in the distance. "If we can do well and get a result somewhere, that would be great for us. It's a tough group but maybe we can sneak through in third place and who knows what can happen once you're in the knockout stages," Jacobs said. "The one thing we don't want to do is come to Canada and lose credibility by being knocked around."
Up against the rampant professionalism of Portugal and Mexico, Jacobs vows to have his boys ready to show the world what New Zealand is all about. "We'll play up being the underdogs. A lot of these boys won't know exactly what to expect in terms of the level of competition, it being their first World Cup and all. First and foremost they need to get used to the atmosphere in the grounds, the excitement. Once they get their heads around it, then they can show what they can do."