Being tagged as an “experienced performer” at a FIFA U-20 World Cup is always going to be a relative term, yet there are of course plenty of youngsters on display who have proved their worth in top-flight action despite their tender years. New Zealand keeper Stefan Marinovic is not one of those but, on the evidence of his inspirational display against Cameroon, his three-year spell at German third-division outfit Wehen has still stood him in good stead.
“Playing in Europe’s been a very valuable experience,” said Marinovic, who is thriving in his role as a leading figure in a mainly domestic-based Kiwi squad, when speaking to FIFA.com. “Even if it’s only the German third division, it’s made me feel very confident about the future.”
As well as pulling off a string of fine saves in the Group B opener, including denying Christ Mbondi from the penalty spot only for the forward to put away the rebound, the 1.90m custodian had a key part in organising his defence alongside captain Nick Branch. “As a keeper you need to be a natural leader," continued Marinovic.
"You have to be willing to give instructions because you have a different perspective on the game. That’s something I always do and I’m happy to see us putting some of my ideas into practice during games. They’re things I’ve picked up by playing abroad and the other players respect that.”
This blend of relative experience and a strong personality clearly give the shotstopper a healthy authority within the Junior All Whites’ squad, and nor is a stranger to the importance of getting the crowd on your side. Indeed, Marinovic interacted with the fans in Cali throughout the game against Cameroon, and was one of those who did a lap of the field bearing a thank-you message to the spectators after the final whistle."
“Taking the banner round the field after the game was something we had in mind beforehand, but of course we wouldn’t have done it if we’d have lost. I think it was a mix of euphoria over the result and wanting to thank the fans, who were truly fantastic,” said the 19-year-old on a gesture he hopes will bear fruit in the remaining group games.
“We know how much it means to have the crowd on your side. Look what happened to Colombia, who were a goal down and went on to win 4-1. That’s how powerful the fans can be. And that’s why I think that if the public takes a shine to our lads, they’ll get behind us. Particularly against Uruguay (on 2 August), who are Colombia’s regional rivals,” he added mischievously.
Though he already had one eye on winning over the fans in Cali, playing in front of such a sizeable crowd still came as a culture shock compared to the third tier of German football. “That was the first time I’d played in front of 35,000 people and it was a lot of fun. I think that only one or two of our team had experienced it before, and that was at the last U-17 World Cup. Most of us have never played in front of more than ten or 11 thousand before, so this was really something,” said Marinovic.
“Of course you’re nervous, there’s no point denying it,” he continued. “But I think that we can start taking a few more risks now the first game’s out of the way. The group’s still very open and our next game against the Uruguayans is going to be decisive.”
Intriguingly, behind the keeper’s visible self-confidence out on the pitch and willingness to give instructions to his team-mates and even the crowd is a solid support network behind the scenes. Indeed, Marinovic is the only member of the Kiwi squad to have brought his family to stay with him at the team hotel.
“They’ve helped me so much since the start of my career and they wanted to be here in person,” he concluded. And given his fine display against Cameroon, might coach Chris Milicich be wishing more of his players had done the same?