Kiwis remain perfect in Oceania

New Zealand booked their ticket to the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 concluding last week’s qualification tournament in Vanuatu with a 100 per cent record, thus emulating the feat of the nation’s U-20 side last month. Qualification means New Zealand will feature on the world stage for the fourth successive time and sixth occasion overall.

The FIFA U-17 World Cup has proven to be a milestone tournament down the years for New Zealand. 1999 saw New Zealand host the event – the first FIFA tournament held in the nation - while ten years later the Kiwis won through to the knockout stage at Nigeria 2009, in what was a first for any of their national teams.

For the other competing nations last week – Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and hosts Vanuatu – there was to be disappointment. There were positives though for Vanuatu with the new venue in Luganville successfully hosting the 14th edition of the tournament, which was the first to be conducted outside Auckland since 2007.

Favourites shine through
New Zealand didn’t have it all their own way over the course of the nine-day event. The Kiwis were made to wait until the final matchday in the six-team event to secure passage to the United Arab Emirates. New Zealand earlier survived a scare against Vanuatu, claiming just a 2-1 win over the hosts, though they secured comfortable winning margins in their four other matches.

A season in the National Youth League ensured New Zealand were a well-prepared unit, although the Melanesian heat and humidity took its toll at times. Qualification was a welcome boost for New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley, who made his debut at the helm after being national team assistant during the past two cycles.

“Credit to the boys because they’ve had some tough moments and it certainly hasn’t been easy, the teams are all improving and they made it hard for us,” said Bazeley. “And obviously the weather conditions have made it difficult for us at times as well.”

“The players have worked really hard to get here and have played some good football. I’m pleased for them and really proud of what they’ve done.”

Pacific quintet strive
While New Zealand had the inside running throughout the tournament thanks to an opening-day 9-0 win over Cook Islands, a keen contest was played out among the Pacific representatives. New Caledonia edged out Vanuatu from second, although the latter ended the tournament with a strong 3-1 win over Les Cagous in front of a boisterous home crowd. Fiji were a further point adrift in fourth, with their tournament notable for holding New Zealand until the latter stages before succumbing 4-2.

On the personal front, New Zealand scooped the pool with Stuart Holthusen and Monty Patterson sharing the top goalscorers award, with Patterson also named the player of the tournament. Young All Whites No1 Zac Speedy was deemed to be the tournament’s best goalkeeper, while Vanuatu attacker Ruben Frank received plaudits for his skilful showings.