As hosts of the OFC's U-20 Men's Championship, New Zealand, considered to be the biggest team in the region following the departure of Australia to the Asian Football Confederation, were expected to ease their way to qualification in Canada before the tournament began.
However, as coach Stu Jacobs was eager to fpoint out prior to the competition in January, youth tournaments can be the exception to the rule, as the young Kiwis discovered to their peril when attempting to qualify for Netherlands 2005. The All Whites were defeated by Fiji and the Solomon Islands, as once again, the Socceroos sealed the OFC's berth.
This time around, things were different: "We had the right preparation, the players were fit and we had the right team," insisted Jacobs. "Coming second was not an option. We expected to win the tournament - and we did."
However, New Zealand's opening game in the OFC tournament was not as straightforward as the above statement from Jacobs may have suggested it would have been. A combination of a numerical disadvantage thanks to skipper Jack Pelter's 48th minute red card, opening day nerves and the woodwork seemed to conspire against New Zealand in their match against the Solomon Islands, which finished 1-1.
Victories against Samoa (7-1) and Tahiti (2-0) got the Kiwis' campaign back on track to set up a decisive match with Fiji, who had enjoyed a maximum return from their four matches going into this fixture. The Fijians took the lead when Roy Krishna weaved his way past three flat-footed New Zealand defenders and struck a shot past Jacob Spoonley in the eighth minute.
Chris James equalised from the spot two minutes before half-time, before Dan Keat nodded New Zealand in front. The islanders were back on level terms in the 68th minute when Krishna scored from the penalty spot, but less than ten minutes later Keat headed home the winner from a Jeremy Brockie cross.
And so it all came down to the final day as Fiji played Tahiti and New Zealand met New Caledonia in simultaneous kick-offs. The All Whites' player of the tournament, James, missed two first-half penalties against New Caledonia, but scored a last minute goal to ensure qualification. As it was, James' concerns were ill-founded anyway as Fiji were upset 2-0 by Tahiti in a match that finished on an adjacent pitch just seconds before the Fulham midfielder's dramatic winner.
One of New Zealand's most highly rated and highly qualified coaches, Stu Jacobs is looking forward to his first taste of a FIFA tournament in Canada 2007. The former All Whites international is also the manager of the Wellington-based club Western Suburbs, who he guided to Chatham Cup success in 2006. Jacobs is also the coach of the Kiwis Olympic Men's team and well regarded for his keen eye in picking out a star for tomorrow.
After Fulham starlet and former England junior Chris James was forced to return home on the eve of these Canadian finals for family reasons, the All Whites' playmaking responsibilities fell squarely at the feet of Wellington native Craig Henderson. Currently playing his 'club' football with Ivy League American University outfit Dartmouth College, silky-footed Henderson is the man expected to dictate the pattern of play for the hopeful Kiwis. Keen on racing up through the centre of the park and with a clever eye for the killer pass, the wispy, blonde-haired teenager is nothing if not optimistic. "When we're going forward we're a great team," he said. "I'm just hoping to play a pivotal role in that attacking play. We defend well too, but we are at our peak when we're attacking and we can stand with anyone when we play our game."