Cometh the Kiwi

Lone Oceania reps New Zealand arrived in Canada with a large contingent of talented but largely inexperienced amateur players and one out-and-out star. However, now the All Whites have had to shuffle their pack considerably after news broke that Fulham man and former England junior international Chris James would be returning home on the eve of the finals for family reasons.

With a decidedly large hole in the centre of midfield to fill, Stu Jacobs will call on Wellington native Craig Henderson. Not affiliated to a professional club, the brainy third-year at US 'Ivy League' University Dartmouth College is now the man New Zealand are looking to to dictate the pattern of play in midfield. With silky feet and a typically Kiwi-style dedication to the cause, Henderson is hoping to make his first big mark on the world stage.

"It's a shame that Jamesy's going home because he's a great player who can make a difference," the slender, blond-headed teenager, who travelled for no less than 30 hours to reach the shores of Lake Ontario, told "But, I think we can deal with it. I hope to step into the middle of the park and take up some of his duties. I am really looking forward to being out there on the pitch."

Most observers expect the debutant South Seas minnows - whose football glory days came when they qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1982 - to suffer in a tough group alongside such notable and frighteningly professional outfits as Portugal and defending U-17 champions Mexico in Group C. But ahead of a stiff opener with the Portuguese in Toronto on 2 July, Henderson finds motivation and hope from the All Whites' position of tournament underdogs.

'We have to play out of our skins'
"We know they (Portugal) are going to be great team and we basically have to defend the best we've ever defended, we have to play out of our skins and every one will have to work their socks off," the affable and hopeful playmaker remarked after a tough Friday training session at the National Soccer Stadium in Toronto. "But if we defend well and take our chances when they come there's no reason why we can't get a result out of it."

Large, tough, slightly naïve perhaps, the Kiwi lads are an appealing lot brimming with optimism about their first trip to a world youth showpiece.

"No one expects much out of us so that's a motivating factor," the player went on. "We want to show that we belong here on the world stage... When we're going forward we're a great team. I'm just hoping to play a pivotal role in that going forward. We defend well too, but we are at our peak when we're attacking."

Getting past Gambia, Portugal and Mexico in Group C will be a big ask for the new kids on the block. But with a little luck and a whole mess of spirit, the amateurs - dealt a hard blow even before kicking off in Canada - may just be finals' darlings in waiting.